Microsoft's New Lab Pushes Social Networking Boundaries

DENVER -- Microsoft's Lili Cheng's passion is making things that solve real problems, so as the leader of the company's new FUSE Labs she fully expects to blur the line between pure research and product development.

In fact, after only a month with its doors open, FUSE (Future Social Experiences) has done just that, helping Microsoft's Bing team release a marriage of the search engine and Twitter just two weeks ago.

"The project was very experimental but once [the Bing team] saw the stuff we had they thought it would be great to try to ship it," she said of what she considers FUSE's first by-product.

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Cheng spoke with Network World at the annual Defrag Conference around social computing and the social Web.

Her rational is simple. "In some sense if you are building social software and you don't deploy, you have no idea if it works or not," she says.

Cheng says FUSE will embed itself with Microsoft product teams from SharePoint to Xbox and whoever is "fun to work with."Cheng says the Bing/Twitter project is a great example of the concept. "We just ship with the product team," she says. "I like that model, especially for [version 1] stuff."

She describes FUSE as an advanced development research group. "We are pretty good at it because we just go for it," she says. 

Cheng is not some young maverick who thinks caution belongs in a stiff wind; she has an extensive and respected background in research, including director of the Creative Systems Group at Microsoft Research. The lab is one of three -- the others being Microsoft's Rich Media Labs and Startup Labs -- that were merged to create FUSE.

She was appointed FUSE director last month by Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie, who told Microsoft staff in a memo: "I've known Lili for many years, and have long been impressed by her vision and ability to create; to engage yet to also inspire; to lead; to make tough choices; to deliver."

Cheng joined Microsoft in 1995 in the virtual worlds research group and worked on social applications such as V-Chat and Comic Chat. She started the Social Computing Group within Microsoft Research in 2001. The team built social networking prototypes including Wallop, which spun out as a separate company in 2004; Photostory, which shipped in Windows; and the Sapphire project, an early vision for redesigning Windows. From 2004 to 2006 she crossed over to the product side and was the director of user experience for Windows and helped get Vista out the door. Before Microsoft she worked in Apple's Advanced Technology Group, on the user interface research team.

"I think the move to the labs is very natural. Ray and I interact all the time and he is just all over this [social experiences]," she says.

While Cheng won't give concrete examples of current projects, she says there is ongoing work with the SharePoint and Outlook teams and there is fascination with Twitter. 

"We are fascinated by the sharing of information in these systems and how you can make it more accessible," she says, mentioning Twitter's recent addition of a list capability. "If you add a little machine learning to lists and groups you could help people's experiences a lot more."

She says as people consume more and more information the question becomes: "How do we make that easier and how do we help people manage their time?"

Cheng says FUSE's focus won't be strictly enterprise, but a major goal will be to embed social activity into business process such as collaboration and where "social" meets real-time and entertainment.

She says, however, the rapid rise of social computing and social networking makes it hard to think too far into the future. "If you look at young people and the way they communicate and socialize it is hard to say where it is going to go."

Regardless of where everything ends up, Cheng hopes users have the new tools in their hands.

"If people can use some great new cool social stuff from Microsoft that would be awesome," she says.

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