By Jia Wu, China Internet Weekly
June 5, 2009 2:00 PM PT
“Nails, enameled copper wires, planks and a bell...” Reading the instructions for constructing a home-made electronic bell in the latest issue of "We Love Sciences," eight-year-old Ji-Rong Wen couldn’t be more excited. He already knows where he can lay his hands on these materials. A nail wrapped with enameled wire turns into an electromagnet, whose power pulls the little hammer over and then releases it to strike the bell to make a sound. Magnetism and gravity take turns so that the electric bell keeps ringing. But where can a bell be found? It occurs to young Wen that his father's bicycle has a big bell that he can “borrow…”
"I have been a boy of action since my early years, keen to implement whatever ideas come across my mind," said a smiling Ji-Rong Wen, now lead researcher of Web Data Management Group at Microsoft Research Asia. "I have been quite confident in my own ability to make things happen, but it is time for us to accomplish something that people really remember." Wen was referring to a search engine that is different from any existing model.
2009 marked Wen’s tenth year at Microsoft Research Asia, a decade in which he worked all the way up from being an ordinary researcher to the head of a research group. Over the years, Wen has gained much more than just a salary. His is not only the story of the growing pains of a researcher; it is a story that includes a leading role in a big search – the search for Microsoft.
At the end of 1998, right before he was conferred his doctoral degree, Wen learned from a local newspaper that Microsoft had set up a research facility in China (Microsoft Research China, the predecessor of Microsoft Research Asia), so he submitted his first and only resume. Microsoft Research Asia has framed the future of computing science for Wen: computers will be able to see, hear, learn and communicate with people in natural languages so that their applications in China would be equally popular, convenient, and easy to use as in other countries. This was precisely Wen’s dream, and Microsoft Research Asia naturally became a place where his dream would come true.
With a strong background in databases, Wen was assigned his first project — in search. Back in 1999, when it was not as focused on search technology, Microsoft sourced such services from Inktomi for its MSN products, and its self-owned research on search engines was more or less preliminary and exploratory. Microsoft, adhering to a prudent strategy for development, attached priority to businesses in which it had a reasonable amount of expertise, so projects in search were dispensable items at Microsoft.
Already aware of the trend of marginalizing search projects, Wen and his team felt an additional sting when the company decided, six months later, to call off all search projects. Wen’s first career roadblock, however, didn’t slow him down: Wen and Wei-Ying Ma, who joined Microsoft Research Asia a few moments after him (and is now Assistant Managing Director of the lab), were determined to hang on even if search might not join the mainstream at Microsoft. "Search is about access to information,” explained Wen, thoughtfully, “People at that time had not yet fully recognized the importance of information, but search was bound to become an indispensable part of their life someday.”
2003 carried great significance for both Microsoft and Yahoo. It was the year that Yahoo acquired Inktomi and Overture; the latter was one of Microsoft’s advertising partners. Microsoft had no choice but to rely on Yahoo for Internet search services. Yahoo, for its part, sought the status of search provider with this acquisition, wanting to compete directly with Google. The acquisition was a resounding wake-up call for Microsoft, and Bill Gates would later admit that Microsoft’s decision to forego the search business was unwise.
It was in this year that Microsoft started devising its own search engine. More than three years of accumulation finally put Wen on the frontlines, and Microsoft Research Asia became a think tank within Microsoft on search-related issues.
"Search is a very interesting thing," said Wen, eyes glowing with his passion for this technology, "Search itself is not a science in the traditional sense, but an area of application expected to solve some very difficult problems, and solutions to such problems require people from various disciplines of knowledge." For example, search technologies involve Internet data management, and ultra-large distributed systems, information retrieval, artificial intelligence and machine learning, data mining and data analysis, in addition to natural languages, multimedia, and human-machine interaction. When working on search-related problems, Wen dives into even more areas. "I often tell my people that I do not know which areas I belong to, and I just reckon myself to be a trouble shooter."
Finding solutions to problems is by no means a piece of cake, and there were more problems than solutions surrounding Wen. So, he turned his eyes to philosophy. "I went to philosophy because I was a bit confused, but studying philosophy would not offer me a direct solution to my problems,” he said. “Through such study, I managed to develop a better thinking habit to go deeper wherever possible." Thanks to this habit, Wen discovered the process of "search engine alienation."
"Alienation" used to be jargon in philosophy first found in the phrase "alienation of labor," meaning that labor could have been a behavior to meet people’s needs, but it later became a means to dominate people’s behavior. To Wen, "alienation" in search refers to people’s inertia with existing search engines, content with simple information filtering rather than using the engines to satisfy more complicated information needs. In this way, the search engine itself dominates most people’s using habits. "Existing search engines are not the final answers to this question, but the beginning of new problems."
The homogenous competition among search giants Google, Yahoo, and even Baidu, offered new opportunity for Microsoft to boast broader fields of study. "The search business has not changed much over the past 5 to 10 years, so there is still a lot of room for innovation there." This was a prediction made by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, but also an encouragement to Microsoft Search.
Microsoft needs to find its unique answer as soon as possible in the search business. Data released by comScore, a U.S. Internet traffic monitoring body, showed that in February 2009 Microsoft accounted for 8.2 percent of the U.S. search market, while Google has 63.3 percent. The difference between the numbers not only reflects the technical gap, but also an arm wrestle between two operational modes, particularly in an English-speaking environment. Microsoft has indeed lagged behind Google in advertising, but differentiated competition could be a shortcut for Microsoft to catch up with Google.
Microsoft Research Asia seems to have become the engine behind Microsoft Search, providing most of the technical support to the company. Former Managing Director of Microsoft Research Asia Harry Shum is now spearheading Microsoft's global efforts in search technology development. "Anyone can learn from Harry, a guy with a positive attitude towards life that always energizes people around him – colleagues and friends alike,” says Wen. “I am constantly learning, both as a researcher and as a manager. The only change in my job description here is that now I need to help create an environment where research enjoys greater freedom, and where researchers fully utilize their talents."
The future of computing and applications will be immigrating to "clouds," which is a prediction Google has made. With a foot on the "clouds," Microsoft still keeps another foot on the software client end where it has made its reputation. A "cloud + client," a.k.a. a "software + services" model, is the newest member of Microsoft’s arsenal in competing with Google.
On Wen’s desk stands a special plate, engraved with the signatures of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, which recognizes Microsoft employees’ outstanding contributions to product development. The one that Wen has happens to be about Windows Live, a product highly related to search. "Future search technology will enable anyone to find exactly what they want at anytime, anywhere. Many are heading in this direction, so I hope we will be a few steps ahead of the others," Wen said, expressing hope that Microsoft would not just run but gallop in a era of cloud computing.