Microsoft's research efforts will help the company emerge strong from the economic downturn, predicted Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, at the company's annual TechFest event.
Research is even more important during times of economic troubles than during prosperity, he said. "If you look back at economic downturns including the Great Depression, the companies that fared best in almost every case were those that actually did two things," Mundie said. "They responded in terms of cost containment and continue to invest in product development."
[ Special report: IT and the financial crisis. ]
Often, the products in development during economic downturns help the company get going again, he said. "We think it will be a key part in how Microsoft performs well as the world starts to pick up and perform better economically," he said.
Research will help the company in the long term too, he said. "I think of research as one of the things that we have to do and elect to do in order to ensure we survive over the long term," he said. Companies that cut research in the face of short-term pressure or never start pure research tend not to last very long, he said. "My belief is the company would struggle to survive and prosper if we didn't have research investment."
One particular area of development that might help Microsoft is new ideas around the user interface, Mundie said, echoing a favorite theme of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Computing currently is controlled mainly with the keyboard and mouse. "The reality is that many people in the world aren't really computer literate in that sense," Mundie said.
The way that people interact with computers will become increasingly critical, he said. As economies worldwide falter, governments are interested in using stimulus programs to invest in health care and education, he noted. Key to implementing those programs may be letting people access them in nontraditional means, he said.
Gates also often talked about new kinds of user interfaces, like pen-based computing and touch.
Using natural voice commands might also be a part of the way that people use computers, he said. Mundie envisions a future where a person can search for information in a far less manual way than today. Rather than surfing online for information about buying a house or a car, a person will simply ask the computer to do it for them, he said.