As Nadella, a 24-year veteran of the company, would have known, the process of turning a Microsoft Research project into a product would often happen slowly, if at all. That's partly by design. The company's research group was set up in isolation from the product teams to allow researchers to envision the future without worrying about how their inventions will make money or fit into the company's mission. ... But Nadella's tight deadline left executives with no time to debate the separation of church and state. ... Microsoft is overhauling its research arm and the way it works with the rest of the company. The goal is to quickly identify technology with the most potential and get it into customers' hands before a competitor replicates it. ... To break down the walls between its research group and the rest of the company, Microsoft reassigned about half of its more than 1,000 research staff in September 2014 to a new group called MSR NExT. Its focus is on projects with greater impact to the company rather than pure research. Meanwhile, the other half of Microsoft Research is getting pushed to find more significant ways it can contribute to the company's products.
Until recently the military junta had imposed artificial caps on access to smartphones and SIM cards. Many of the farmers we spoke with had never owned a smartphone before. The villages were often without running water or electricity, but they buzzed with newly minted cell towers and strong 3G signals. For them, everything networked was new. ... Almost all of the farmers we spoke with were Facebook users. None had heard of Twitter. How they used Facebook was not dissimilar to how many of us in the West see and think of Twitter: as a source of news, a place where you can follow your interests. The majority, however, didn’t see the social platform as a place to be particularly social or to connect with and stay up to date on comings and goings within their villages. ... What follows are a series of diary entries and notes culled from our interviews. The interview teams were composed of three or four people: a translator, a photographer, a notetaker, and sometimes a facilitator. ... Everyone is data sensitive he says and reiterates: Facebook. Nobody needs a special app for their interests. Just search for your interest on Facebook. Facebook is the Internet. ... Everyone installs apps using Zapya, an app-sharing app. Makes a local network. Everyone nearby connects to it. Allows groups to send data—apps, videos, music—back and forth without using bandwidth. ... there is no incumbent electric giant monopolizing rural areas to fight against solar, there is no incumbent bank which will lobby against bitcoin, there are no expectations about how a computer should work, how a digital book should feel. There is only hunger and curiosity. ... They don’t have email addresses and so often don’t know their logins. If they get logged out they have someone—often the village Facebook guru—make them a new account. “Friends” on Facebook are friends only because the application calls them friends in the interface.
For years now, social media has been where people go to find out what’s happening during a crisis; even aid agencies and emergency managers have come to rely on hashtags and live video to form a picture of how an event is playing out on the ground. But the hail of updates can be rapid and incoherent. ... sometimes there’s no information coming out of a disaster zone—because the internet has gone down, as happened in large parts of New York and New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy landed in 2012. This is another fundamental problem that Facebook is, almost by coincidence, working to solve. For the past two and a half years, the company has been developing a program to deliver the internet via drone to parts of the world that don’t have it. The business reason for this fanciful-sounding project is pretty straightforward: It will speed up Facebook’s efforts to expand globally and serve ads to even more people in what is already the world’s largest audience. But the team has always had the idea that the same technology could be vitally important in, say, an earthquake zone. ... This new incarnation of Safety Check begins with an algorithm that monitors an emergency newswire—a third-party program that aggregates information directly from police departments, weather services, and the like. Then another Safety Check algorithm begins looking for people in the area who are discussing the event on Facebook. If enough people are talking about the event, the system automatically sends those people messages inviting them to check in as safe—and asks them if they want to check the safety of other people as well.