Microsoft Corp. has turned to academia to help guide its year-old Trustworthy Computing initiative, forming an academic advisory board to review the company's security and privacy initiatives.
The Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Academic Advisory Board is made up of 14 experts in computer security and software development culled from top universities around the world including Stanford, Cornell, and Carnegie Mellon in the U.S., as well the University of London in the U.K. and the University of Milan in Italy, according to a statement released by the company.
A separate, five-member Privacy Committee of legal experts is also part of the Academic Advisory Board. That committee includes experts on privacy law and privacy technology from Indiana University and the University of California at Berkeley, among others.
The board is currently convened for a two-day meeting at Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, campus.
Microsoft assembled the advisory board to help guide the company on security and reliability enhancements to its products as it pursues the goals laid out by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates, according to Microsoft.
At the meeting this week, the board will hear presentations from Microsoft on Windows security, projects currently under development in the company's Security Business Unit and issues related to the widely-used Internet Explorer and Office products, according to a statement by David Ladd, manager of external research programs for Trustworthy Computing at Microsoft.
Microsoft said that it is hoping that feedback from the board's expert members will prevent it from making missteps in its security investments for Trustworthy Computing.
The Redmond, Washington, company said it also hopes that developing relationships with lead academics will help to spread its Trustworthy Computing concepts to the computer science programs that will produce the next generation of software engineers.
On the privacy front, Microsoft is hoping that the international representation on the board will help it anticipate problems resulting from tougher privacy protections in the European Union and elsewhere.
Still, the board's recommendations will not be law. Microsoft will strive to refine the advice of the academics into action items, but that any recommendations from the board will be weighed against the company's business model and "changing business conditions," according to Ladd.
The new advisory board's primary purpose is to clean up Microsoft's image as an insular and secretive organization, according to John Pescatore, vice president at Gartner Inc.
"For Microsoft, part of Trustworthy Computing is improving Microsoft's reputation. So part of this is its marketing impact, " Pescatore said.
However, Microsoft may also benefit from an inside line on some of the new and original ideas that come out of academia, according to Pescatore.
"If you look at corporations, most of what they do is development or applied research that's tightly wrapped around a product line. There's not a lot of 'Let's randomly try good ideas and see what happens.' These academics get a whole fresh crop of graduate students in each year, some of those students have good ideas," Pescatore said.
In return for their time, ideas and advice, the academics and the universities they represent get visibility and, possibly, grant money from Microsoft to help fund their research.
"There's a lot of quid pro quo...There's so much of this that goes on between industry and academia," Pescatore said.
While some will surely complain that their presence on the Advisory Board undermines the independence and credibility of the academics, Pescatore said that the board's work could end up benefitting consumers.
"The best possible outcome is that Microsoft begins to incorporate into their development process new ways of making code more secure and if (the advisory board) in any way helps Microsoft change their culture to help systems interoperate rather than just steamrolling (competing operating systems)," Pescatore said.
Microsoft plans to have the board meet twice a year for at least the next three years, though the board's tenure could last longer than that, according to a statement by Ladd.
While optimistic that the advisory board will infuse new ideas into Microsoft's development processes, Pescatore said that he was doubtful the board will soften the company's "take no prisoners" approach to competition.
"I don't think the advisory board will result in Microsoft saying 'We are the world, let's all hold hands," versus them saying 'Let's hope Windows kills Unix," Pescatore said.