Microsoft wants to prove that its technology – and the ideas in the heads of its researchers – can be applied to solving the world's environmental, energy and health problems.
That's the idea behind Microsoft's thenth annual Research Faculty Summit 2009 being held Monday and Tuesday, where Microsoft scientists will join experts on such fields of study as oceanography, ecology, genetics and the interaction of the earth's atmosphere with nature's carbon dioxide-absorbing vegetation and mankind's carbon-spewing energy and transportation systems.
With sessions on topics ranging from managing the massive flows of data from ocean and atmospheric experiments to how to apply information technology to solving problems of water shortages and rural education, the main point of the summit is to bring Microsoft's talents to scientific work.
Or in other words, "We don't want these scientists to have to become computer scientists," said Dan Fay, director of earth, energy and environment research at Microsoft. If Microsoft can give them tools to improve their work, more the better, both for the course of science and Microsoft's potential new product line.
Not that any new products are being planned in the context of the summit, Fay said. But it does represent an attempt by the software giant to find new uses for existing technology, he said.
For example, Microsoft's technology is being used in projects by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to study the hydrology of the Russian River and to synthesize data from sensors around the world to measure the "carbon flux" in the atmosphere.
Fellow IT giant IBM has also been researching water, both in a scientific context and in terms of how it can help businesses and governments use it more efficiently (see IBM Dives Into Smart Water Management).
In Microsoft's case, it doesn't want to see technologies "put on the shelf if they have some silver bullet for solving a problem," Fay said.
Another example is Microsoft's plan to release the source code of its Trident workflow software on Monday.
The software is already in use by scientists involved in the Neptune project, a University of Washington-led project that has deployed sensors and drone data-collection submarines in the ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast.
The idea is to take data from those undersea sources and put it together in a format that can be accessed via the internet from wherever researchers happen to be working, said Roger Barga, a principal architect with Microsoft's Technical Computing Initiative.
"This is really changing the fluidity at which they can go from raw data to results," he said. "A kid in Ohio can access this data" as easily as the scientists involved.
Microsoft has opened Trident to all interested parties in part to prove that its business workflow software can suit the specialized purposes of scientific experiments. Over the next year it will build up a community of users for it, Barga said, though he wouldn't predict where Microsoft might next go with the software.