Microsoft’s new New England research lab

It may seem odd that it’s taken Microsoft so long to decide they should have one of their network of academic-linked research facilities in Cambridge, Mass. Not surprisingly, it’s located very close to MIT!

Microsoft’s own Research website, and MIT’s Technology Review, both profile the new lab (I tagged the TR report in while I got round to writing this piece). I’ve visited Microsoft’s lab in Cambridge, England, which like the new lab is close to an academic faculty but not part of it.

Jennifer Chayes, who will head the new lab, says that the work there will aim “to break through barriers between core computer science and social sciences, and to do fundamental research that can lead to deeper insights and better computing experiences in an increasingly online world”. MIT’s renowned Media Lab has many research projects in this overlap area, and the computer scientists at CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence) and the Sloan Management School’s IT-related business research groups will also without doubt be key links for the new lab.

Microsoft’s website doesn’t yet list the research areas for the new lab in more detail, but her interview in TR gives some pointers. You wouldn’t think that phase transitions in physical systems – and I used to teach those to geologists! – would relate to IT problems, but read the interview and figure out how it matches to resource allocation problems such as multicasting, social networking and recommendation systems.

Microsoft values its researchers as researchers; but what they do has a habit of turning into valuable sources of revenue! The Lab opens in July. Watch this space.

Applying Theory at Microsoft MIT Technology Review, 21 Feb 2008
Microsoft Research New England’s Focus: Research Relationships (Microsoft Research website)
MIT Media Lab
MIT Sloan School Research Centers

MIT’s top 10 emerging technologies – 2008

MIT 10
MIT’s Technology Review publishes an annual hit list of ten top emerging technologies – not all of them IT, but IT is always well represented.

This year’s list includes a technology for wireless power; there are quite a number of these developments around these days, including some the TR10 missed such as Splashpower in the UK. It includes “Modelling Surprise” – not magic, but developing a scenario modelling methodology that takes into account disruptive surprises of the past. Also modelling uncertainty is probabilistic chip design, which recognises the range of computational areas where absolute precision is un-necessary and thus enables power consumption of devices to be reduced: this technology may also come into its own as component sizes continue to reduce and the physics of uncertainty come into play in mainstream design.

Sandy Pentland’s Reality Mining is also in the list: by enabling mobile devices to “recognise” each other when they’re in range, data can be gathered about the social or professional encounters between their owners. Knowledge of their personal networks can then help facilitate serendipitous meetings (think “I didn’t know you’d be here!”)

Visit TR to review the complete list.


• Technology Review’s Ten Emerging Technologies of 2008 (Tech Review, March/April 2008)


This is the new home for ITasITis

This blog has migrated from LiveJournal.

LiveJournal is a great service but doesn’t have any facilities to track visits to the blog. InformationSpan does need to know how many people we’re reaching, what’s popular, and how frequently it’s useful to post stuff. We don’t want to overload you but we do want to continue delivering useful stuff.

Past posts are still available, for the time being, on LiveJournal.

At a workshop on Business 2.0

Forrester Research, when I worked in corporate IT, were a major source of inspiration for the company’s development of its next generation user environment. Forrester’s phrase, Information Workplace, encapsulates the vision. You probably stick with a major office and collaboration suite – Microsoft’s or IBM/Lotus’s. But that’s no longer the end of the story as consumer-scale services develop on the Web. Many of them are being used already; if you’re in enterprise IT, just check how many of your colleagues are already on LinkedIn.

I shared yesterday in a Forrester workshop on this theme. There’s demand from enterprises to know what it’s all about. The analysts, Rob Koplowitz and Oliver Young, were moving on to do a repeat in Germany and they are a regular in the US. This isn’t directly a report of the workshop; discussions are of course confidential between participants. But I’ll share some of my own thoughts, stimulated by the discussion and born of experience.

First, and as I’ve said before: the issues aren’t new, just presented in a new form. When web browsers and internet email reached the enterprise, managers were terrified staff would spend their time browsing. Now, the paranoia is that they’ll spend all their time blogging … strange to hire people and then trust them so little or manage them so poorly.

But there are issues. Staff with technology at home need to treat corporate information differently from the holiday snaps. The issues are regulatory as much as intellectual property related. On the other hand: what happened to X.400 as the secure email channel? The collective judgement turned out to be that the overhead of managing two email architectures wasn’t a good investment, and encrypted SMTP, or just the low-ish risk of open transmission, was good enough for most things. Implicitly, management accepted this. Now, digital rights management overlays this. We’re getting there.

The same potential to compromise the company arises with external blogs; people need to be educated, not threatened, and supporting technologies made easy and accessible.

Second, can social networks enable better business interactions? Facebook, MySpace and others are beginning to lose ground as they become another overloaded channel – just when platforms such as are beginning to integrate to them. Younger people of my acquaintance confirm that Facebook is less cool than it was. LinkedIn (which I visited with a Leading Edge Forum field trip in 2005) is going in a different way, maintaining its professional focus and adding value through services like its what-are-your-colleagues-reading News feature.

Third, what about Web 2.0 inside the firewall? A wiki, for example, will automatically maintain an audit trail as a document is developed; with office documents and email that is an extra task that probably doesn’t get done. SixApart (which I visited, again with LEF, in 2006) have commercial-weight, internal, blog software as well as carefully differentiated Internet ones. Enterprises are finding great value in a blog (and its automatic generation of RSS) for internal communication, as opposed to the blanket email. You can do tagging internally too (e.g. Cogenz or ConnectBeam). But – seeing what your colleagues are tagging is useful, but it’s likely more useful to view tags from outside your usual circle. Take care though: have a look on and see how many internal documents from your enterprise domain are tagged there. The content’s not accessible of course. But the document title, and the fact that it is tagged, are maybe of interest to competitors, anti-company activists, and others.

New ideas don’t arise from people who already share much of your own perspective! Take this one further, to social networking, and it’s the breadth of an open external network which is its value.

As we found with browser access and email, the enterprise will eventually find the right level to use Web 2.0 services. The business benefit will come to those who can think through the issues clearly, find the right answers for their particular situation, and enshrine those answers quickly in architecture and business process, while everyone else is catching up.

Footnote. After I wrote this, I found a blog posting from Forrester’s Groundswell linking to a write-up of their research in MIT’s Sloan Management Review. So even if you’re not a Forrester or SMR subscriber, you can see this for free.


Forrester Research Workshops on Web 2.0 and business
‘Harnessing the Power of Social Applications (Sloan Management Review, 14 Feb 2008)
‘Facebook fatigue’ hits networking website (The Guardian, 22 Feb 2008)
I guess you can find your own links for IBM and Microsoft …

Links are provided in good faith, but InformationSpan does not accept responsibility for the content or behaviour of linked external sites

Google Apps finds a back door into the enterprise

In this business, there are times when almost everything you write seems to have a Google dimension. The last posting was about Microsoft and Yahoo! – but the suggestion that Google might get involved has hardened over the last few days. Now, in a different part of the universe, Google has announced a new version of Google Apps which isn’t aimed at individuals and consumers, and isn’t the enterprise-ready version; it’s in between.

Google Apps Team Edition is designed so enterprise users can use it without corporate IT needing to do anything. Hence it doesn’t include Gmail – IT support is the only way to route corporate mail to Gmail. But being web based, unless the security people block Google in the browser (and would you fancy being the manager who ordered that?), staff can use it.

What does it give them that the individual versions don’t? Someone in Google was smart enough to figure out that they can tell a user who else in the same company is also signed up. And of course you can invite those who aren’t. So you get all the team collaboration stuff directly.

Question: should IT be worried? They probably will be. But there are some companies that have grasped the idea that they can let go of the user’s hand and trust them (mostly) to walk on their own. They will likely see free, easy to use services which users like, which meet the 80-80 rule (80% of the needs of 80% of the users), and which reduce dependence on Microsoft licensing. And if Apps takes off, there’s an upgrade path to the enterprise editions. On the other hand, should Risk Management be worried? Mostly, people have stopped worrying about whether Gmail is secure. But certainly some information flows are regulated and have to be recorded, so there can be a real problem. Users, at the least, need to be well educated about the risks and to have a clear understanding of when the corporate infrastructure should be used.

But there’s always a parallel. In the early days of corporate email, we used to say that confidential mail shouldn’t go via Internet. We had X.400 for that stuff, if you remember … What happened? People stopped worrying and now it goes via the Internet. Implicitly, in most cases the disbenefits of maintaining parallel infrastructures and of the inconvenience to users outweighed the security benefit. Instead, encryption was applied to Internet email, and more recently we have digital rights management from companies like SealedMedia. It’s far more effective to work with your users, not against them.

But what do you think? I’d love some comments.


Google Intros Apps Edition to Bypass the IT Department (, 7 Feb 2008)

Google Apps, Team Edition or see the main entry for Apps

If you want a completely different take on enterprise collaboration, Forrester Research clients might like to read this blog by Erica Driver: Virtual Offices For All: Return Of The Serendipitous Interaction (From Information to Knowledge Management, 4 Feb 2008)

Microsoft and Yahoo! – or will Google step in?

The news of Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo! broke in the Saturday papers, and there’s a mass of coverage. It’s worth collecting some of the initial comments. Both companies spread wide, and some people – and companies – will find themselves buying services from Microsoft when, perhaps, they deliberately chose not to. In the UK, for example, a lot of broadband internet is supplied by a BT/Yahoo! joint offering so there’s an immediate potential impact there.

Google certainly think it’s worth reacting to. They fielded David Drummond, Senior Vice President, Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer; and he immediately raises the spectre of Microsoft’s “legacy of serious legal and regulatory offenses” to encourage regulators, and consumers, to sit up and take notice. And to position Google as the champion of the open internet.

In business terms, does it make sense? What have Yahoo! got that Microsoft haven’t? The Guardian tagged the bid as and admission of failure by Microsoft and an attempt to “buy its way into the 21st Century”. Microsoft, it says, maintained its dominance of desktop and office software; but Google ate its lunch in search and, along with the open source movement, is making inroads into the applications market. Yahoo! dominated search until Google came along, but is there any way that pooling Yahoo! and Microsoft’s resources would magically create a Google-beater here? There’s analysis of this one from The Observer (that’s The Guardian‘s Sunday sister) and one interesting quote is from a financial analyst who says “We see Google as a search business, but it is a media company that makes all its money from advertising”. Would the combine challenge Google in this space? Adding their two market shares doesn’t win, and mergers don’t create new ideas automatically. But it’s perhaps a better indicator of why Microsoft’s made the move, and where it thinks the IT business is going. And of a shift in the media business too.

Forrester’s Charlene Li blogs about this in Groundswell and about the way both companies need to play catch-up in social computing.. She looks at the jewels in a potential combined portfolio: Flickr and, Microsoft’s investment in Facebook, and so on. She raises the possibility of Yahoo! selling Google its search advertising to defend itself (remember this is a hostile bid), raising the cash to stay otherwise independent. Google did this kind of deal with MySpace.

This isn’t an enterprise IT-oriented merger bid; indeed Computerworld‘s reaction is that it might distract Microsoft from the enterprise’s primary business with Microsoft which is precisely desktop and office software. It’s about the social web, advertising and media. But if (when) social networking finally gets adopted by enterprises – Faceforce, the link between and Facebook, is a straw in the wind – then there would be an impact there too. As Charlene puts it, “people go where their friends are”. There’s a lot more comment out there, as you’d expect; no substitute for going looking for yourself – no doubt via your favourite search engine …


Yahoo! and the future of the Internet Official Google Blog, 3 Feb 2008

Microsoft tries to buy way into 21st century The Guardian expert comment, 2 Feb 2008; alternatively, go to the homepage at and search Yahoo Microsoft

Microsoft’s bid for Yahoo!: What it meansCharlene Li, Groundswell, 1 Feb 2008

Would a Microsoft-Yahoo deal out Google Google? Computerworld, 1 Feb 2008

Links are provided in good faith, but InformationSpan does not take responsibility for the content of linked sites. News sites often archive material after a few days; use the site’s search engine if a link fails.