August 2, 2005 4:00 AM PDT
Who in the world is Kai-Fu Lee?
Lee, the ex-Microsoft executive hired away by Google to head its Chinese operations, has been framed in vastly different terms by each company in their court battle over his defection.
Microsoft has cast Lee as a highly paid vice president central to its computer search efforts, vital to its strategies in China, and unwilling to negotiate a mutually acceptable switch to Google. For its part, Google claims Lee is "not a search expert" and was peripheral to Microsoft's business in China.
Google says the dispute over Lee's particulars is a "charade" that hides Microsoft's real motive. Rather, the lawsuit over whether the executive broke a noncompete agreement is meant to scare other Microsoft employees into abandoning any ideas about leaving, the search giant claims.
All told, the Kai-Fu Lee contest is shaping up as a proxy for a broader contest between software's reigning leader and the challenger that threatens its kingdom. Years ago, Microsoft ousted the old guard to emerge as the powerhouse in PC computing. Now Google appears to be following in Microsoft's footsteps, jumping out ahead in the lucrative search business, encroaching onto its desktop space and potentially expanding into newer Internet-focused areas.
Google declined to comment for this article or make Lee available for an interview. But a review of his career indicates he has made his biggest splashes in the area of computer-user interface technology and in setting up a Microsoft research center in China.
Lee's doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1980s marked a breakthrough in speech recognition technology, said Lawrence Rabiner, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at Rutgers University. Lee's system could recognize the speech of more than one person, allow for natural and continuous speech, and handle a vocabulary numbering in the tens of thousands of words, Rabiner said.
"It was the best-performing system of its time," he said.
After stints at Apple Computer and Silicon Graphics Inc., Lee went to Microsoft in 1998, according to his biography on Microsoft's Web site. He directed the company's China research center from that year until July 2000, and then moved to Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash., according to his court declaration. In August that year, he took on the title of vice president and signed the employment agreement that Microsoft claims Lee broke by accepting his new job at Google.
Google and Lee claim that Lee's work did not focus on search technology. "Throughout his career, both before Microsoft and while employed there, Lee was an executive who managed groups developing technologies primarily in the area of speech recognition and enhancing the user interface," they say in court documents. "This information was not being actively considered for any search application when Lee left Microsoft's employment just days ago."
Microsoft, though, paints a very different picture of Lee's duties. These included "managing the creation of new search technologies and methodologies for Microsoft," the company said in its court filing. It also said that search technologies and innovations developed by Lee are incorporated into products and services that compete directly with Google.
Most recently, Lee headed up the Natural Interactive Services Division at Microsoft, responsible for the development of technologies and services for making the user interface simpler and more natural. A Microsoft representative noted that the unit's work includes technologies and products for advanced search.
"The innovations in natural language process created by Dr. Lee's teams will ultimately be incorporated into MSN's search engine to enable new and innovative ways to improve search results," the representative said. "Dr. Lee is also intimately familiar with Microsoft's
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