Bill's don

Roger Needham, the boss of Microsoft's hoopla-laden U.K. research lab, talks about the Redmond-Cambridge connection.


Karlin Lillington
June 1, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

CAMBRIDGE, England -- Going by his reception last summer in England, Bill Gates must be the closest thing to royalty the Yanks have as far as the Brits are concerned -- especially if His Gatesness is in the mood to dispense alms in the form of 50 million pounds (roughly $80 million) for a Cambridge-based research lab.

Stateside onlookers relishing the current combat between Microsoft and its U.S. government foes would have cringed at the gooey adulation and white-gloved politesse lavished on Gates when he arrived last summer in the venerable university town. Airlifted in by helicopter and disgorged onto one of Cambridge University's expansive, rolled lawns, Gates was carefully shielded from the press and whisked away for (literal) red-carpet treatment. Prime Minister Tony Blair -- famously inept with computers and the Internet -- fawned. The deal was solemnized, and the British newspapers gave the investment front-page coverage, proudly editorializing about Britain's new tech hipness.

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In the eye of the cyclone was Professor Roger Needham, the Cambridge academic and vice-chancellor appointed to head the lab, who calmly dispensed interviews to publications from London to San Jose. Needham was an astute choice as mouthpiece for the lab -- he's an unswayable, adept media handler used to the ferocious British press pack. He's also a geek's geek who has worked in the Silicon Valley labs that bring distant longing to the eyes of computer devotees, like Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center.

Apparently, Needham is viewed as a bit of a loose cannon by Microsoft, which likes its spin as precisely modulated as possible. Accustomed to the far less constrained approach to public relations followed by Europeans (excluding, of course, the slick PR factory of Blair's Labour Party), Needham simply says what he thinks. And, interestingly, what he thinks right now is that last summer's media love-in with Microsoft was a catastrophe.

"The announcement in London last June was, from a PR point of view, a disaster," he says. Certainly an odd sentiment given the story's wall-to-wall coverage and his own sudden popularity explaining odd details of computer theory to gushing television reporters. But he worries that the scale of the project and investment was blown out of proportion: "It gave people the idea that a very much bigger thing was being done."

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Certainly, 50 million pounds over five years is not a monumental gesture for a company that coughed up $8 million to use the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" as a Windows 95 jingle. Also lost in the jumble of Microsoft publicity was the fact that the Microsoft laboratory is hardly unique in Cambridge, which already hosts three other research labs set up by technology companies. Microsoft's is not even the largest, as Needham is quick to point out -- that honor goes to the joint Olivetti-Oracle lab.

The agreeably disheveled and tweedy Needham, who likes to stand and pace as he talks in measured sentences, can unnerve journalists accustomed to the hypefest that normally accompanies major Microsoft projects. Nonetheless, there's a breathtaking luxury to Needham's acknowledgment that the 50 million pounds is actually "a metaphorical statement that there's enough money." Microsoft apparently just needed to come up with an attractively fat and round base figure to shape the deal. The originally stated budget, he says, "is a work of imaginative fiction" erring on the conservative side.

Basically, there's plenty of cash to lure the deep thinkers of the theoretical computing world, the ones who can visualize today how the power of the microchip might be harnessed tomorrow. According to Needham, Microsoft's chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold told him, "Go and get the best people there are." As Needham says, "Who could resist that proposition?"

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Whatever the real budget -- and Needham implies it has an elasticity that would make university research departments green -- it includes a minimum yearly $500,000 "external research" fund that Needham started dispensing a few weeks ago. In a gesture immediately noted by Europe's weakly funded research institutes, Microsoft Research Ltd. -- the formal name for the Cambridge Lab -- announced it would sponsor a 50,000-pound, two-year postdoctoral fellowship in association with the tiny School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland. (Curiously, DIAS was set up in 1939 as a pet project of the first Irish prime minister, Eamonn de Valera, a mathematics teacher; when de Valera couldn't get Albert Einstein as its first director, he settled on famed physicist Erwin Schrodinger instead, and arranged to get him out of Nazi Germany.)

The fellowship is evidence that the Cambridge lab is finding its feet after being launched without guidelines: "About the only thing that emerged in conversation [with Microsoft] was, obviously, not to duplicate anything that's done in Redmond," says Needham. "We didn't have a clear agenda and it's only at the moment clarifying."

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Along with sidekick professor Derek McAuley, the Scottish assistant director of the Cambridge lab, Needham has determined five areas of research emphasis for the facility: security, networking, information retrieval, programming-language theory and decision theory. "Some areas we knew we'd be working in because they're our research areas," says McAuley. "The others evolved." That evolution in some cases depends on just whom they've been able to lure to the lab (so far, 13 researchers of an eventual 40 or 50).

A top research lab develops by attracting the best people in their field, not the best available people, says Needham. Those researchers' interests then shape the lab's reach. For example, he says the lab's leaders hadn't originally planned research in programming-language theory. But one morning as they stood around drinking coffee in Cambridge University's computer laboratory kitchen, a visiting Italian researcher, one of the world's leading lights in that area, strolled past. "We looked at each other and said, 'I wonder ...,'" says McAuley. They got him.

Salaries at the lab are "internationally competitive," Needham coyly acknowledges, unwilling to offer a figure. But we are, after all, talking Microsoft here. "We can't quite get anyone we want," he insists. "Our offers aren't invariably accepted." For some, he says, this is because they aren't interested in working in England; for others, it might be what he calls the "two body problem" -- a spouse who can't find work in the region. Then there are those who have, he says, negative "delusions" about working for Microsoft.

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The stuff of those delusions was almost uniformly ignored in the breathless reportage which followed the lab's announcement in June. One of the few British journalists to express any cynicism about the deal was Bill O'Neill, an editor at the British daily newspaper The Guardian, who wrote a strongly worded op-ed piece asking, "Is this the sort of partner that Cambridge wants, let alone that its world-ranking scientists and technologists deserve? Cambridge needs investment to exploit its intellectual talent ... But forging a deal with Microsoft looks more likely to shackle Cambridge staff to the ideals of a ruthless organization."

Predictably, Needham says: "I think this is actually a misplaced view." He stresses that the lab is a European lab with its own set of international researchers, not a British institution employing only Cambridge University scientists. He and McAuley insist they find the Microsoft work environment exhilaratingly pro-research, with a satisfying connection between research and its practical application to products. But still, isn't British -- or European -- brainpower being channeled to benefit an American multinational?

Almost no European companies or institutions are funding significant research, Needham counters: "If you look at the worthwhile computing research places in the U.K. they're all American-owned," excepting British Telecom's lab. "Now this is extremely sad. But the fact of the matter is that the U.K. and European software and computing industries are not that strong."

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Now, he says, Europeans have the option of staying in Europe and still "doing world-class computing." He adds that the Microsoft lab has been careful not to poach researchers from competing facilities with the offer of Microsoft salaries and stock options: "We're quite anxious to be recognized as good citizens and not as going out with a financial vacuum cleaner."

Their greater concern is to maintain a profile within the distant company. "The big challenge is how to influence the company, because they're eight time zones away. There's a real problem with 'out of sight, out of mind,'" says Needham. But he hopes that success in Cambridge might result in further Microsoft rewards for Europe: "If we can prove you can run a distant research lab and the company can gain from it, they might consider establishing other similar facilities."

In the end, the availability of top facilities matters more to the research brother- and sisterhood than who runs them. Ultimately, though, the company footing the bills calls the shots. No one can really predict whether the relationship between Europe-based theoretical research and Redmond-based practical implementation will remain cozy or turn uncomfortable. But the high profiles of both Cambridge and Microsoft guarantee that we'll quickly learn about either outcome.


Karlin Lillington

Karlin Lillington is a technology writer in Dublin whose work appears regularly in the Guardian, the Irish Times and other publications.

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