Sustaining, Disruptive, Blue Sky: How Microsoft Invests in Research

By Scott Kirsner |  April 8, 2015

On our recent Field Study visit to Microsoft Research, Peter Lee showed one of those slides that had everyone in the group suddenly reaching for their phones to snap a picture. Dr. Lee is corporate vice president of Microsoft Research; he previously ran a major technology office for the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

With permission, we’re sharing the image here. It shows the different kinds of future-focused work that Microsoft Research allocates resources to. (You can click the image to enlarge it.)

An explainer:

The lower-left quadrant is mission-focused, which means work requested by other organizations within Microsoft.

The lower-right quadrant is sustaining technologies, which means a focus on continuous improvement of existing software testing tools, for example, or machine translation capabilities.

The upper-left quadrant is disruptive, which means a focus on new, surprising, and inventive work that can propel the company forward.

The upper-right quadrant, blue sky, really refers to open-ended, curiosity-driven research that pushes the frontiers. One example: Microsoft’s investment in quantum computing research.

Last fiscal year, Microsoft’s research and development budget was $11.4 billion. It has been estimated that Microsoft’s investment in basic and applied research, essentially the budget for Microsoft Research, is about five percent of that total R&D investment. Additional background about Microsoft’s research approach and initiatives can be found here.