With federal funds for basic computer science research at universities in decline, three of the industry’s leading companies are joining to help fill the void.
Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are setting aside their bitter animosity to back a new Internet research laboratory aimed at helping entrepreneurs introduce more groundbreaking ideas to a mass audience.
The facility, housed at the University of California, Berkeley, will develop open source Web services. All three companies will contribute equal measures financially.
Sun Microsystems Inc. also is joining the $7.5 million project at the University of California, Berkeley. The Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed Systems, or RAD, lab was scheduled to open shortly and will dole out $1.5 million annually over five years, with each company contributing equally. The new research center will focus on the design of more dependable computing systems.
Computer scientists have grown increasingly alarmed that federal support for basic or "pre-competitive" research is being eroded by shifts toward applied research and shorter-term financing.
Earlier this year, MIT researchers announced several similar corporate-backed basic research efforts, and Carnegie Mellon University officials said they were working on similar arrangements.
The Berkeley researchers say that under the terms of their agreement with the three companies, the fruits of the research will be nonproprietary and freely licensed. Each company has agreed to support the project with $500,000 annually for five years. Although the companies are frequently rivals and only occasionally allies, they have concluded that they can operate most effectively by bringing technology innovations to market quickly.
Staffed initially by six UC Berkeley faculty members and 10 computer science graduates, the lab plans to develop an array of Web-based software services that will be given away to anyone who wants it.
Conceivably, the lab’s services could help launch another revolutionary company like online auctioneer eBay Inc. or even Google, which has emerged as one of the world’s most valuable companies just seven years after its inception in a Silicon Valley garage. It is interesting to have Google as one of the founding investors because one of the big questions the RAD lab is trying to address is, ‘How do you get the next Google out there?‘ said Greg Papadopoulos, Sun’s chief technology officer.
The lab already has created something highly unusual–a bond between Google, the maker of the Internet’s most popular search engine, and Microsoft, the world’s largest software maker.
The Berkeley lab’s founding director, David A. Patterson, is a veteran computer scientist who has led a variety of academic research projects that have had a significant impact on the computing industry since the 1980s. Patterson, currently the president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a national technical organization, has recently been a vocal critic of the shift of basic research funds away from universities and toward military contractors.
We are trying to sustain the broad vision, high-risk and high-reward research model, said he was initially was worried about the friction, but "everybody was pretty mature about it," Patterson said of the new Berkeley effort.
The two are fierce rivals in search, and their behind-the-scenes rancor has been publicly aired in a recent Washington state court battle triggered by Google’s recent raids on Microsoft’s work force.
Microsoft senior researcher James Larus said the collaboration on RAD should not be seen as a truce.
We are not going into this with the idea that we are going to be collaborating with Google or that they will be collaborating with us, said Larus, who will be Microsoft’s primary liaison with the RAD lab.
Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems also has had a prickly relationship with Microsoft, although they have been getting along better since Microsoft last year paid Sun $1.6 billion to settle antitrust and patent infringement lawsuits.
In a statement, Google said it is excited to be involved in the lab and looks "forward to the exciting ideas and technology that will be developed there."
Sun and Google are highly collegial. In October, they formed a partnership to develop more software tools that might pose a threat to Microsoft’s dominant Office suite of word processing and spreadsheet applications.
UC Berkeley and other universities increasingly are turning to the private sector to help offset declines in spending by the federal government. Earlier this year, UC Berkeley stuck a deal with Internet powerhouse Yahoo Inc. to open a research laboratory devoted to online search.
High-tech companies have a huge incentive to help make up for lost government funding, said Larus, who got his doctorate from UC Berkeley.
We realize if research is not being done in university laboratories, he said, "then the pipeline of ideas and computer science graduates coming into our companies eventually is going to dry up."