Who Says Microsoft Doesn't Do R&D?

Microsoft Research projects drive innovation in development.

Microsoft gets a lot of grief from critics who claim that the company innovates primarily by appropriating the ideas of its competitors. But the world's largest software maker is hardly sitting around waiting for "The Next Big Thing." So says .NET expert Ted Neward, who gave a session about some serious Microsoft-originated innovations at this year's Software Development Conference & Expo West (SD West), held in Santa Clara, Calif.

"How many of you have looked at C# 3.0?" he asked. "It turns out that C# 3.0, a large of part of which we now call LINQ, was originally a language called C omega. This was a language that was on the MS Research Web site, and had some very interesting ideas unifying the type systems between the relational database and the XML. And this idea of this simpler components model, what Microsoft now calls chords, [came] out of that research."

Parade of Innovation
Neward gave other examples: F# is a new functional/ object hybrid programming language that came out of Microsoft Research (MSR), as did Joins, a declarative concurrency library based loosely on the C omega language. Fugue, a powerful tool for specifying and enforcing resource and state-machine protocol specifications, is a child of MSR. So is Detours, a library designed to make it easier to hook calls made to DLLs. Abstract IL is an MSR library created to make it easier to manipulate compiled .NET assemblies. Finally there's Phoenix, a software optimization and analysis framework that will be the basis for all future Microsoft compiler technologies.

Much of what Neward discussed is not commercially available. "Which is to say, you can't ship code with it. But you can use it for your own purposes," Neward said.

He cited the IronRuby project, a .NET implementation of the Ruby programming language. The dev team is using Spec# -- a design-by-contract tool originally inspired by Fugue -- internally on that project. "That's a real-world use that you can't technically ship with," Neward said. "When they ship the final IronRuby, they've compiled it with the standard C# compiler; they use the Spec# compiler only internally. Nothing prevents you doing the same."

Fugue is available for download now for non-commercial use. The Phoenix SDK, pre-release 2007, is also available for download, with another release expected in March. "There's a lot more going on at MSR than we can cover here," Neward said. "But this is the stuff that might make a difference to me as a programmer."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance author and journalist based in Silicon Valley. His latest book is The Everything Guide to Social Media. Follow John on Twitter, read his blog on, check out his author page on Amazon, or e-mail him at

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