I've always thought that the idea of investing in research products was a good one in many industries. Some of the companies that were very successful across the last hundred years were those that invested in learning about the technologies and processes in their industries. From these ideas and inventions, engineers have built the products that companies sell and which enrich our lives. Government and academia have also helped fuel the advance of technology in America, but it takes business interests to provide the practical implementations of innovations that can be bought and sold.
There are people that think corporations like Microsoft and Google should focus on their core businesses and maximize their profits. However I think the investments that these companies make in various research areas allow them to learn about new opportunities that may become products at some point. It can be hard to determine if a technology area is viable for products, and the targeted research these companies engage in can help them improve existing products, or invent new ones.
I think that having research areas enables diverse opportunities that may help attract, or retain, some extremely talented employees. I know I'd love the chance to take a sabbatical for a year and work on a research project of some sort. The top talent at many large companies may want to work in a theoretical area for a period of time, and companies may find very talented academics that might want to try working on more practical endeavors.
I was watching this keynote from Microsoft Research and it was amazing to me how much of an effort Microsoft is putting into their research. They claim they are the number one organization doing basic research in computer science. They publish more research, and funding more graduates student hours of work than any other single institution. Considering how large some universities are, this quite a commitment to research. It's one that I hope they continue in the years to come.
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