a tech news report on MSR Cambridge open day on zdnet seems to feel that the sort of open ended research they do is not "useful" and is merely a status thing - the report is based on the things seen that day and could be contrasted with the glowing bbc report about google
The contrast is strong - the stuff the zdnet reporter says is useless and the stuff the bbc enthuse about are completely different - they are also selective
a) MSR cambridge has done shedloads of things (more than any other lab) that have made it into products and mainstream products at that (tools and techniques to fix concrrency problems, remove device driver problems, and game AI work, for example) -
b) the pipleline for work to get out of MSR into a products group is around 5 years...
c) the google work, in contrast is much more like Cisco's model (hire or buy some PhDs in whose work is nearly done...and
d) is mostly just development
The lack of context in either report is typical of modern slapdash journalism - IPv6 mobile work came from Lancaster - things like lo-power are on everyone's agenda from home users, EU and US lawmakers to data centers and mobile devices....the idea that apple would exist without the tech transfer from Xerox PARC into Apple research into product lines is laughable - the timeline there was more like 10-15 years - once tat group was done, of course Jobs shut it down but longer term, they will regret not having a constantly refreshed on tap pool of researchers
in the current economic climate, most pundits think it is even more crucial to have a research pipeline to come out of recession with shiny new stuff - hence Telefonica, T-Labs, MSR, etc etc, have ring-fenced the budget for their research labs - governments too have (Obama increased US research budgets, the UK have tried to at least keep EPSRC funding level...)
yes it has status and marketing value none the least amongst tech/geek followers - of course it doesn ,because it is a clueful strategy, not some empty-headed shell purely for windows-dressing (pun intended).
Having recently been part of a review team at Telefonica I&D, the Hamilton Institute, Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, Eurecom (in Sophia Antipolis) and MSR, I can honestly say that these guys are all fantastically useful, and people that can't see this are looking for the wrong thing (I'm not just talking about contributions to fundamental human knowledge, I am talking about contributions to health, entertainment and business (the bottom line)