Microsoft

The clearest sign yet that Microsoft is cool again

Microsoft's changes to its research and development operations are much bigger than you think. Here's how the company is rebuilding its "cool" factor.

Image: iStockphoto/LornaWu

Microsoft is clearly in the midst of a renaissance, and nothing more clearly indicates this than its aggressive use of open source. Initially a "cancer," and then an afterthought, open source has become Microsoft's single greatest weapon in recovering its industry stature.

SEE: Microsoft jettisons support for legacy software

For evidence, look no further than its opening up of CNTK, Microsoft's artificial intelligence framework that powers everything from its digital assistant Cortana to the Skype Translator.

Getting R&D to contribute

Microsoft has always been a technology pioneer. The problem is that the company too often bottled up such innovations, as Bloomberg captures.

Despite a booming R&D budget, the research done within Microsoft's labs rarely got productized, as I've written before. Or, as Ahmad Abdulkader, an engineer on Facebook's applied machine learning team, and formerly of Microsoft and Google, told Bloomberg, "Microsoft totally separated its research arm from the rest of the company and almost made it optional to contribute to the rest of the company. Google took the exact opposite approach."

This sometimes left Microsoft scrambling to catch up with innovations released elsewhere. Under CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft's R&D team is actively engaging with product teams to ensure all those R&D billions contribute to tens of billions in sales.

But, this isn't the clearest sign of Microsoft's rebirth.

Opening up R&D

As interesting as it is that Microsoft is moving technologies out of R&D and into product, the far more industry-changing news is that Microsoft is actually open sourcing some of those same technologies.

Take CNTK, as mentioned above.

While all of the major web companies—Facebook, Google, Microsoft—have open sourced their artificial intelligence engines, Microsoft actually went much further than its peers, as Wired's Klint Finley details. Not only was Microsoft first to market before Google, but unlike Google's TensorFlow, CNTK "can take advantage of the power of many servers at the same time." This is essential, as Finley continues, and it's why CNTK is such a big deal:

[I]t's rare that a single computer is powerful enough to handle a real-world artificial intelligence application, such as speech recognition on an app used by millions of people. Internally, Google likely uses TensorFlow on thousands of servers at a time. But the version Google released to the public...can't be used in this way. In fact, few deep learning frameworks other than CNTK support running across multiple servers right out of the box...

Microsoft, in other words, didn't release a toy. It's giving the world its crown jewels. That's not a Microsoft sort of thing to do. The Microsoft of yore might make a big statement by open sourcing something like its server-side .Net technologies, but that came well after it was beaten by Java.

With CNTK, by contrast, Microsoft is releasing its best at a time when that best is sorely needed in the industry.

A Microsoft we can believe in

Small wonder, then, that we're seeing Microsoft regain its cool factor, not to mention revenue. Open source used to be the tool of choice for underdogs and challengers. Today, it's the mark of a company that is confident in its ability to drive and profit from innovation.

Open source used to be "un-American" in Microsoft's eyes. Now, it's the soul of Microsoft's core strategy for distributing software and making money. This is a very different Microsoft, and a much better Microsoft.

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    About

    Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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