Innovation Day was both a showcase and a polite way of asking Brussels to call off its antitrust attack dogs
Microsoft's European staff put masses of time and energy into organising their third Innovation Day in Brussels last week, only to see their efforts upstaged by their star guest, Bill Gates.
At a round-table with journalists, Microsoft's co-founder remarked that Windows Vista had survived antitrust complaints by rivals who had tried to "castrate" it. Which would journalists rather discuss, castration or innovation? No contest.
Still, the widespread belief that the European Commission, chiefly in the form of competition commissioner Neelie Kroes, is out to castrate Microsoft is, it must be assumed, a core reason for Microsoft's charm offensive.
In this case, Gates did a quick walkthrough of the new European Executive Briefing Centre, accompanied by MEPs and TV cameras, before giving speeches with Finland's prime minister Matti Vanhanen, also the current president of the EU; Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International; and Nikolay Vassilev, Bulgaria's minister of state administration.
"Europe is home to some of the world's leading universities and some of its most innovative companies," said Gates. "Because innovation is the key driver of growth in today's connected, knowledge-based economy, it is critical that governments and private industry in Europe work together to create a climate that will enable innovation to flourish across the region." This is a roundabout way of saying something like "call off your antitrust attack dogs, please".
Also announced was the Microsoft Language Development Centre in Portugal, and an S2B (Students to Business) community programme that will target computer science students in eight European countries, plus Turkey and South Africa. These are in addition to the $500m (£262.4m) that Microsoft says it will invest in R&D in Europe by 2007.
Although seen as a US invader, Microsoft is already one of the leading companies doing research in Europe. The company points out that on the R&D Scoreboard compiled by the Department of Trade and Industry, Microsoft climbed from 11th place in 2003 to seventh last year and to fifth this year. It also says it has filed for 420 patents based on research done in Europe, including 284 applications from Microsoft Research Cambridge and 41 from the European Microsoft Innovation Centre in Aachen.
And if all that weren't enough, Microsoft had a couple of floors in its Brussels EBC packed with exhibits from European organisations, including BT, the British Library and European universities. The exhibition went beyond Microsoft's innovations to include other things that could plausibly be connected with Microsoft products, especially Windows Vista.
Nonetheless, it has to be said that Microsoft's main US research centre in Redmond stole the show, with a presentation by Andy Wilson. He's developed what he calls "surface computing", which enables him to manipulate images and data on any surface, such as a tabletop, by using real-time computer vision, gesture recognition and short-throw projector technology. You can move images around by moving your hands, without touching the table, and make them larger or smaller by raising or lowering them.
Rick Rashid, who runs Microsoft Research, had already shown this in Brussels last December, but only on video. What made it compelling was that attendees could try it themselves.
John Winn, from Microsoft Research Cambridge, also attracted a crowd with an object recognition system developed with Antonio Criminisi and others. Stick something under Winn's webcam and it would instantly recognise and label it - hand, pen, watch, phone, can, keys or whatever. MEPs and besuited executives probably don't carry too many objects that would challenge the system, but some fun could be had by trying.
The Microsoft Research centres in India and China were also represented, with peer-to-peer file browsing and sharing for mobile phones and on-demand video search respectively.
Among the commercial applications, one highlight was CrimeSceneNet software from Imasoft ApS, Denmark - having blood-spattered bodies on the floor attracts attention, even if they are dummies. The software, designed for Vista, pulls together and displays all the data connected with a crime scene in one place. It's being tested in the US and Europe, including Northumbria, for release early next year.
It's not clear that this concerted investment in Europe will raise Microsoft's image with the centralised bureaucracy that runs the EU, but all the separate countries, universities, research centres and computer science students want more of it.
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