For months now we’ve been wondering when Microsoft was going to start making moves in the social media space. Rumors of talks with Twitter have been swirling at all levels of the company, but now a subtle re-org may shed light on what Microsoft might do internally to shore up its presence in the RealTime Wave. Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie has announced the formation of Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs, a new group led by general manager Lili Cheng. FUSE Labs is being seeded with a range of related talent and software by combining much of Lili’s Creative Systems Group with Rich Media Labs and Startup Labs in Cambridge, MA. In the past, she’s been able to move social technologies from the labs into product.
In an internal memo, Ozzie talks about the growing vortex of social media and realtime:
For many years, technology-based ‘social’ innovations have been most commonly viewed through the lenses of communications and collaboration: messaging, chat, calls, meetings, conferences, co-editing, document sharing, collaboration, multiplayer gaming and the like.
More recently, many factors have begun to transform all that which is ‘social’: the ever-present, high-bandwidth internet both wired and wireless; the ease of connecting people; the dramatic rise in digital cameras, camera phones and ‘app-capable’ phones; net-connected game consoles & TVs; and so on.
Myriad scenarios involving the notion of ‘social’ have now gone far beyond communications and collaboration and are transforming experiences that are key to our customers and key to our business, in leisure & entertainment; productivity & teamwork; experiences extending how we use the OS itself.
The three groups being combined have concrete skills and code in areas where ‘social’ meets sharing; where ‘social’ meets real-time; where ‘social’ meets media; where ‘social’ meets search; where ‘social’ meets the cloud plus three screens and a world of devices.
FUSE Labs will bring more coherence and capability to those advanced development projects where they’re already actively collaborating with product groups to help them succeed with ‘leapfrog’ efforts. Working closely with MSR and across our divisions, the lab will prioritize efforts where its capabilities can be applied to areas where the company’s extant missions, structures, tempo or risk might otherwise cause us to miss a material threat or opportunity.
Cheng, who will report directly to Ozzie, moves from Microsoft Research (MSR) and her Creative Systems team, which most recently produced Kodu, which teaches kids how to create games and stories on the Xbox. Previously, Cheng was in the Windows division where she managed the User Experience teams for Windows Vista. Before that, she ran the Social Computing Group within MSR, which developed projects such as Wallop and VChat. Cheng first joined Microsoft in 1995 as part of the Virtual Worlds Group within MSR.
Reading between the lines, Cheng’s ability to surface technology from the labs has now been focused on more immediate concerns. This mirrors Microsoft’s success with Bing, which has emerged with many MSR features as part of its well-received search engine. Most recently, some of the Visual Search features debuted at TechCrunch 50 take advantage of Silverlight deep zoom technologies. It’s not a stretch to assume that these features will be laced throughout whatever social media constructs might as Office Web Apps hit the beta streets later this year.
Cheng will retain most of her original team from Redmond while traveling to Cambridge to consolidate the other teams. Kostas Mallios, general manager of the Rich Media Lab, will continue to report to Ozzie and take on business development responsibilities assisting the incubations within Ozzie’s org. Reed Sturtevant, managing director of the Startup Labs in Cambridge, MA, has decided to pursue interests outside Microsoft.
Photo credit: Flickr/Joi Ito