Microsoft Doubles Down on Links With Japanese Academia

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Microsoft is looking to expand ties with Japanese universities and has unveiled a multi-million dollar long-term plan to deepen its research roots in the country.

The "Mount Fuji Plan" got its start this week and builds on the software maker's Institute for Japanese Academic Research and Collaboration (IJARC) that was formed in 2005 by Bill Gates. It focuses on fundamental-level research projects.

"The idea is to create a mechanism to foster research, support students and build relationships," said Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft, in an interview in Tokyo on Thursday. The IJARC allowed Microsoft to form links with professors and offer internship programs as a first step to collaboration with Japanese academia and was modestly successful, he said.

"The Mount Fuji Plan doubles down on that," said Rashid.

The project will be coordinated out of Microsoft Research Asia, the company's Asian research headquarters in Beijing, and offer universities and their professors and students a chance to collaborate with Microsoft, work in the company's labs as interns, promote academic exchange and get curriculum input from the company.

The Beijing research labs are perhaps best known for work on speech and optical character recognition but the Mount Fuji Plan won't limit its sights to any particular area, Rashid said.

The Japanese projects will likely focus on areas the country is best known for, like robotics, and areas where there is a lot of interest, such as digital preservation of cultural artifacts. Work from Japan in this area has already contributed to Microsoft Research Asia's e-Heritage project. Green technology and environmental and energy-related research is also expected to flow through the program.

"We provide funding that doesn't have strings attached," Rashid said. That allows research to refocus should a more interesting or more promising discovery be made while pursuing the initial aim of the project, he said.

Microsoft will invest about US$300 million in fundamental research this year, said CEO Steve Ballmer at a Tokyo news conference. But that figure represents only a small part of the company's overall spending on research and development.

"Microsoft as a company will invest US$9.5 billion into innovations to drive cloud computing, new screens and new application types," Ballmer said. "It's that R&D effort that gives us products like Windows 7 or some of the innovations you see in our search engine, Bing, or the kind of work we're doing in the new release of Microsoft Office 2010."

"US$9.5 billion is a bigger R&D investment than any other company in the world and it reflects our fundamental optimism about what's possible and the need to drive very quickly to this new world of three screens and could computing," he said, referring to Microsoft's new concept of connecting with users via the three screens of a PC, cell phone and television and manage data in the cloud.

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