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Inside the Labs At HP, Microsoft and IBM 81

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the not-the-retriever-kind dept.
alphadogg writes "At Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, investment in research and development is a reflection of corporate culture. This three-part piece by the IDG News Service examines the different approaches taken by each of these influential tech companies. Hewlett-Packard prides itself on its pragmatism, while Microsoft holds the flag of basic research aloft — and IBM continues to file more patent applications, year after year, than any other tech company."
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Inside the Labs At HP, Microsoft and IBM

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  • by wowbagger (69688) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @12:05PM (#34389398) Homepage Journal

    If the goal is to create a marketable product, it is DEVELOPMENT, not research.

    Research is trying to find basic things that you can use to identify areas to roll into development.

    Research SHOULD fail regularly ("fail" in this sense being "did not lead to areas to develop."). If it isn't failing regularly you aren't trying hard enough.

    This is the key that too many businesses now-a-days miss.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by martas (1439879)
      And, what's your point? MS research is doing research. They regularly publish in top conferences in many fields. At least in systems, they're on par with the top US universities in terms of output. Though, unfortunately, they're quite unique in this sense, I believe -- can't think of any other company that does this.
      • by vegiVamp (518171)

        And, funnily enough, that frequently gets them the label of vaporware company. They are, of course, but that is because their marketing are asshats, and has nothing to do with the quality of their research.

        • by martas (1439879)
          Heh, good point. By the same standards, all of academia should have a huge VAPORWARE sticker on it (not that I think there's a problem with that -- I'm complicit, being a graduate student and all)
          • by vegiVamp (518171)

            Academia doesn't start spouting "look what a great tablet we're developing OMGPONIES" two weeks before Apple is rumoured to be presenting the iPad, though.

    • Research SHOULD fail regularly ("fail" in this sense being "did not lead to areas to develop.").

      Sometimes, somewhere along that chain, Research SHOULD have failed but somehow hiccuped and still went into development.

      And then we got Windows Millenium Edition.

      • Research SHOULD fail regularly ("fail" in this sense being "did not lead to areas to develop.").

        Sometimes, somewhere along that chain, Research SHOULD have failed but somehow hiccuped and still went into development.

        And then we got Windows Millenium Edition.

        No, that's how we got Windows - all of 'em.

  • Why do "The Three Stooges" come to mind...

    HP prides itself on "Pragmatism" - though their PCs are the worst in the industry on all levels. Their test equipment was absolutely phenomenal - but they chose do dump that.

    Microsoft prides itself on "basic research" - which would be great if they were all studying for the PhD's - but has seemed to done this in contrast from the focus of making a responsive, reliable, easy-to-use desktop OS.

    IBM..."the most patents"....I don't even want to go there.

    • Okay - I *will* go there - "the most patents" - almost as useful as "cleanest rest rooms"...
      • by windcask (1795642)

        "the most patents" - almost as useful as "cleanest rest rooms"

        This is how we keep money flowing in the US economy. Companies pour money into R&D to copy and patent their and other companies' ideas, then the other companies sue the company for infringing on their patents, which in turn build up litigation costs. The victor in court pours the settlement/award money back into R&D and the process starts all over again.

    • Re:Hmmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

      by mcgrew (92797) * on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @12:29PM (#34389792) Homepage Journal

      Buzzword advertising.

      Ponticac: "we build excitement" (bad brakes, shitty steering)
      Ford: "Quality is job 1" (their work's cut out for them)
      Chevy: "Like a rock" (damned thing won't start)

      Why should the computer industry be any different? If you want to know the worst qualities of any product, look at what they advertise and you'll find it.

      • {Laughing out loud!!!} :)
      • by mounthood (993037)

        Why should the computer industry be any different? If you want to know the worst qualities of any product, look at what they advertise and you'll find it.

        Microsoft: the eXPerience, Personal (it was my idea)

        Apple: all about the individual

        So with Microsoft we get the borg, and with Apple we get DRM?

    • Re:Hmmm... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by funwithBSD (245349) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @12:55PM (#34390216)

      IBM's strategy for patents is not for tech discoveries.

      Most of them are for business processes. Totally unenforceable.

      So why do they do it? It is the ultimate non-competition agreement.

      It really only binds the guys who are on the patent so they don't go to another company and take the business process with them.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by JAlexoi (1085785)
        Yet IBM does still patent a shitload of actual discoveries. In fact IBM's research department(which is BTW is not the same as R&D) does research not only in IT related areas - basic applied physics, medical research, energy, etc...
  • IBM patent quality (Score:5, Informative)

    by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @12:37PM (#34389934) Homepage Journal

    One other thing I think IBM does a good job of is assuring that not only does it obtain a lot of patents, but those patents are generally of high quality, in the sense that they're real innovations that have actual value. IBM provides some significant incentives to employees to encourage patent submission, but those submissions are then vetted by a fairly skeptical evaluation committee before they're turned over to legal. Some crap patents leak through, but they're a tiny minority.

    I think one of the best evidences of IBM's success in creating good patents is that IBM earns substantial revenues annually for licensing its patents, and does it without trollish behavior like submarine patents, lots of patent lawsuits, etc. IBM's patent licensees are typically happy to pay the license fees because the patents offer real value, and aren't things that the licensee would likely have independently invented. The result is over a billion dollars annually in patent licensing, which helps to offset a portion of the R&D budget.

    Disclosure: I work for IBM, but not in PR and not in research. I also know of plenty of really dumb stuff the company does, but I think this is one area that IBM handles very well.

    • by mlts (1038732) * on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @12:58PM (#34390266)

      IBM has some patents that are actual innovations, rather than "hmm, lets patent the fact that water is wet and farts smell" type of crap that is all too common these days:

      Take the ZTIC. This is simplicity in itself, but if banks actually used a device like this (handed it out to their customers and made them use it), it would essentially stop bank and credit card fraud cold.

      Another item is IBM's hard disk research -- this got us from the megabyte drives to the terabyte drives with GMR and other ways to drastically increase the areal density of HDD platters.

      The thing that HP, Microsoft, and IBM do is pave the way for others in the field, and often this is lost on people. It takes someone making a battery technology before someone else can make a device that uses it.

    • by maitas (98290)

      It's been for a couple of years now that IBM is no longer the company that files more patent request. Finally
      China has happenned and Huawei has surpassed IBM in 2008 and 2009.
        Goodbye US, you have been beaten at your own game.

        Hello China !! Or should I said "Nihao"

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by bouldin (828821)

      There is no doubt that IBM has some world-class labs that produce leading research and some amazing technology.

      At the same time, IBM makes headlines (and slashdot articles) regularly for stupid patents and stupidly obvious patents. I won't bother linking all of them, but here is one from two months ago: http://entertainment.slashdot.org/story/10/09/15/2235251/IBM-Patents-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-Movies [slashdot.org]

      Remember that when you read about how many patents IBM gains and holds. This is a land grab.

      • by swillden (191260)
        I did say that some crappy patents slip through. Still, the fact that you had to go back two months is pretty telling. If IBM patented a stupidly-obvious idea every week, that'd still represent barely 1% of IBM's patent volume. I'd bet that's a better non-obviousness vetting rate than the patent office as a whole achieves. Of course "better than the patent office" isn't saying all that much.
        • by bouldin (828821)

          I don't think we have data on how many IBM patents are stupid, so you're guessing at that 1% figure.

          Maybe a better stat would be how many patents are licensed or productized, and how many patents sit on the shelf and are never used.

          I can't prove it, but I suspect most IBM patents are never used, other than to lock up Intellectual Property. That's why I called it a land grab.

          • by JAlexoi (1085785)
            I bet that 99.9%(or a ridiculously high percentage something like that) of patents are never actually implemented within the first several years. We are out of the era where you can build some innovative, non-obvious, without prior art machine, patent it and get it to market in a year after patent granted.
          • by swillden (191260)

            I've never seen any evidence that IBM acquires patents in order to lock up inventions. If IBM doesn't implement it, they'll license the patent. What IBM does do (from what I've seen as an outside observer -- I work for IBM but none of this has anything to do with my job) is use the patents defensively, meaning they don't get enforced at all, even though someone is infringing on them, unless that someone threatens to sue IBM for infringement on some of their patents.

      • by JAlexoi (1085785)
        IBM is not a company, it's a small country - about 400'000 employees(none of which are janitors and other support staff). And as in most countries, there are assholes and idiots. And out of thousands of patents there are destined to be some idiotic ones...
        • by bouldin (828821)

          And out of thousands of patents there are destined to be some idiotic ones...

          That argument works both ways:

          Out of thousands of patents there are destined to be some useful ones.

  • From the article:

    Microsoft researchers built tools that are helpful in testing very large and complex software, essential to try to guarantee that the code does what it's supposed to,

    That certainly does not sound like basic research to me. Indeed, it does not even sound like research. It is a software development project.

    Can anyone name one Microsoft Research project that has significantly affected the computer industry?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by arkenian (1560563)
      Its been a long time since I studied the output of MS basic research labs, but I remember 12 years ago being given a summary and being quite impressed. Not all of their basic research is in the computer industry per se. They had some great solid state physics modeling going on. As to actual innovations, the one I remember best is the note that Clippy, when he was first put out, was the most advanced AI-like program commercially available, and was a direct result of their basic research into AI and natura
    • Re:This is research? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Animats (122034) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @01:32PM (#34390850) Homepage

      Can anyone name one Microsoft Research project that has significantly affected the computer industry?

      Yes.

      Microsoft's natural language work resulted in the grammar checker in Word, which really is parsing sentences, not just looking for common errors. Microsoft Research used to give out a program you could plug into Word which let you see the sentence diagrams.

      Microsoft has for years been doing serious work in automated proof of correctness for programs. "Spec#", the proof system for C#, was a research result. Another effort in that area involved automated verification of Windows drivers [microsoft.com] to determine if they could crash the rest of the OS. That paid off. In Windows 7, every driver has to pass the static verifier before it gets signed. Verified drivers may not drive the device correctly, but they don't crash the rest of the OS. (Yes, there's a formal undecidability problem. In practice, the system can either provide a proof or a counterexample for 97% of drivers submitted. The remaining 3% are typically flaky anyway; if your kernel driver has formally undecidable semantics, it needs a rewrite.)

      There's more, but that's enough for now. Microsoft really does have one of the very few pure research groups left in computer science.

      • Microsoft really does have one of the very few pure research groups left in computer science.

        I am not an MS fanboi by any means, but I have to agree here. It is becoming very hard to find CS research groups doing really innovative research anymore, even in academia. DoD and NSF funding for pure CS and computational systems has, for the most part, dried up, having been diverted towards biological and weapon-oriented endeavors. The only real funding in CS is in data-mining, "autonomous vehicles", and othe

        • by sgt101 (120604)

          Lots of good points above, I won't repeat the things that I agree with - but there are a few things that I would like to pick up.

          You said that there were dozens of R&D labs that studied software. I disagree.

          I think that people studied programming languages, and they studied compilers and interpreters, and they studied methodologies. Very few studies of software as it is and as it runs. We had FEAST from Murray Lehman (I vaguely think) but there have been very few serious investigations about actual syst

      • by clampolo (1159617)

        "Spec#", the proof system for C#, was a research result

        Pretty sad that decades of $500M a year have led to the "innovation" of stealing a language feature of Eiffel and putting it into a Java clone.

        Another effort in that area involved automated verification of Windows drivers [microsoft.com] to determine if they could crash the rest of the OS. That paid off. In Windows 7, every driver has to pass the static verifier before it gets signed

        Nice. A lint tool for drivers.

        • Pretty sad that decades of $500M a year have led to the "innovation" of stealing a language feature of Eiffel and putting it into a Java clone.

          It's more than Eiffel design-by-contract, though it certainly builds on that idea. It's a static contract checker that's the interesting part there.

    • From the article:

      Microsoft researchers built tools that are helpful in testing very large and complex software, essential to try to guarantee that the code does what it's supposed to,

      That certainly does not sound like basic research to me. Indeed, it does not even sound like research. It is a software development project.

      Can anyone name one Microsoft Research project that has significantly affected the computer industry?

      Either you are trolling or you are utterly clueless.

      • Either you are trolling or you are utterly clueless.

        Not trolling at all. Indeed, you are unable to answer the question I pose, and instead turn try to turn it around into an attack on me.

        (for the record, I am not utterly clueless, partially maybe. But not utterly.)

        How much money has Microsoft said in its SEC filings that it has spent on Research and Development. What is the result of that money spent? I remember the big PR splash that Microsoft Surface made, and how it was boasted to be a product of Microsoft Research. Then I saw this video [ted.com] of John

        • The correct URL for Johnny Lee's awesome presentation is here [ted.com].

          (I had the wrong URL on the clipboard when I wrote the previous post. See... I am partially clueless. :) )

        • Either you are trolling or you are utterly clueless.

          Not trolling at all. Indeed, you are unable to answer the question I pose, and instead turn try to turn it around into an attack on me.

          Not unable, but simply unwilling. I mean, c'mon. Are you serious that you could not have answered that question yourself by doing a simple google or looking at the MS research publication? Also (and furthermore), why answering the question when it is indeed a loaded one?

          Indeed it is a loaded one because it is disingenuous to require industrial research to be significantly revolutionary since 1) revolutionary significance can only be answered and attested in decades, and 2) being a research project and p

        • Here, another one, just off the press:

          http://www.infoq.com/news/2010/11/LINQ-Z3 [infoq.com]

          Let us know if that is revolutionary enough.

    • by ljw1004 (764174)

      That certainly does not sound like basic research to me. Indeed, it does not even sound like research. It is a software development project.

      It's more like university research than a software development project because it's centered around theoretical ideas by individual researchers who spend some time to build a tool that embodies their idea. I worked on one of these tools ("Zing") six years ago but it's been superseded and replaced by completely new ideas many times since then.

      "Generics for .NET" was an MSR research project that significantly affected the computer industry. This form of generics hadn't existed before. It's different from C++

  • HP-B? (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Hewlett Packard-Bell has a research lab? What are they researching, how many customers they can tick off with unreliable garbage products before the company implodes?

    DJ 9xx Series: 80+% failure rate in five years
    DJ 5xxx Series: Still no published drivers that work correctly with a remote queue; design problems; 100% malfunction rate
    OJ K550: 60% failure rate out of the box, 80% after five years
    LJ 42xx/43xx: design flaw in swing gear: 100% failure rate in five years

  • by Pinback (80041) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @01:59PM (#34391320) Homepage Journal

    One of them does research and generates patents, one of them pimps ink and Intel hardware, and one of them makes the Zune. Not sure why they tried to include them all in the same article.

  • I knew it. Only in totally free research environment that MS is practicing can you produce such groundbreaking advancements as Clippy.
  • by MasterOfGoingFaster (922862) on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @04:08PM (#34393616) Homepage

    From TFA:
    " IBM can lay claim to not only inventing the personal computer..."

    I guess the writer thinks Steve Jobs invented the telephone, too.

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