Microsoft and Google, the titans of technology, are locked in a legal battle over Kai-Fu Lee, a highly regarded Microsoft executive who...

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Microsoft and Google, the titans of technology, are locked in a legal battle over Kai-Fu Lee, a highly regarded Microsoft executive who jumped ship to Google last month.


In court, the companies are feuding over whether Lee’s job with Google would violate a contract he signed preventing him from doing competing work at another company. The questions focus largely on how deeply he was involved in Microsoft’s search strategy.


But the real struggle may have less to do with Lee’s technical expertise and more to do with his ability to influence a generation of young technologists, especially in China.


And this influence may also help explain why, even after seeing a string of top talent defect to Google recently, Microsoft chose Lee’s move as the one to challenge in court.


“Microsoft is an outstanding company from which I learned a lot,” he wrote in an open letter to Chinese students on his Web site recently, explaining his decision. “But Google is a company that awakened my spirit.”


Lee, 43, spent the first two of his seven years at Microsoft in China establishing the company’s Beijing research lab. He returned to Redmond in 2000 and most recently served as corporate vice president of the Natural Interactive Services Division, leading projects such as voice-recognition systems for corporate customers.


Kai-Fu Lee


Age: 43.

Birthplace: Taipei, Taiwan


Education: Holds a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie Mellon University and bachelor’s degree in computer science from Columbia University.


Google job: Leading product research and development center in China, serving as president of Google’s Chinese operations.


Last Microsoft job: Corporate vice president of the National Interactive Services Division.


Past employers: SGI, Apple Computer, Carnegie Mellon


Accomplishments: Founded Microsoft’s Beijing laboratory, which has become one of the key research centers for the company.


Source: Microsoft, Google


But he maintained strong relations with top government officials and he remained connected to a large network of students through the Web, answering questions, providing career advice and serving as a kind of spiritual leader to aspiring Chinese technologists.


“Sometimes I feel the students I interact with are my extended family,” he said in a July 19 interview with The Seattle Times — before the legal dispute between the companies reached fever pitch.


Friday’s debut of Chinese search engine Baidu on the Nasdaq, which quadrupled in value in its first day of trading, only intensified the competition. Google has a stake in Baidu now worth more than $90 million, but Baidu also promises to be a formidable rival for both Google and Microsoft in China.


At a time when Microsoft and Google are competing fiercely and both are seeking to expand in China, some executives may worry that the talent that followed Lee to Microsoft will join the exodus to Google.


Lee hired a host of technology experts, including Ya-Qin Zhang, whom Lee recruited from Sarnoff Labs to help found the Beijing lab.


Zhang later became the lab’s director before being promoted to a different post in Redmond.


Microsoft has already lost a significant number to Google, and the lawsuit could be aimed at curbing more defections.


Lee said he approached Google in May after hearing of the company’s plans for China.


He was hired to open a new research center for Google in China, but Microsoft won a temporary restraining order preventing him from starting work.


Exactly what Lee will be able to do is unclear until the legal issues are resolved. The next hearing is set for Sept. 6.


Insights from book


Lee said he is looking forward to his book being published next month. Titled “Be Your Personal Best,” it chronicles his personal experience at Microsoft and other companies and his philosophy combining Eastern and Western values.


“We’ve been looking for the right leader for a long time. Kai-Fu’s name came up over and over,” said Alan Eustace, vice president of engineering at Google.


“He understands the market very, very well. I think he has a very unique relationship with students.”


Lee, an honorary professor at 10 Chinese universities, said he interacts with college students daily through his Web site.


“It’s a passion and hobby of mine,” he said.


“I believe an increased understanding between China and America is paramount to making the world a better place to live,” he said.


“And I want any job I take to have a significant portion devoted to that.”


Late last month, Lee spent two of his first few days on the job at Google making a swift visit to Beijing, where he met with reporters and interviewed a Google job candidate.


He made national headlines, and his bespectacled face turned up on the cover of weekly news magazines in China.


Lee’s move coincides with Google’s rising popularity in China, said Gao Jian, a recent Beijing university graduate who writes for the Chinese magazine Business Watch.


“Kai-Fu Lee is a kind of idol among universities,” Gao said. “Students in universities just want to choose a name and go where he is. Bill Gates and Kai-Fu Lee are both a kind of hero in the business, but Kai-Fu Lee has more contact with the students. And he is a Chinese. I think this is an important reason.”


In the industry, Lee is best known for contributions to speech-recognition technology, demonstrating in the late 1980s that a computer could be trained to recognize speech from various human voices.


John Makhoul, chief scientist at BBN Technologies in Boston, worked with Lee on the project for several years while Lee was at Carnegie Mellon University.


“He’s smart, he’s easy to talk to, obviously people like him and are impressed by him,” Makhoul said.


In the 1990s, Lee moved away from basic research, focusing his career on technical management. He worked at Apple Computer from 1990 to 1996 and then did a two-year stint at Cosmo Software.


From Cosmo, he joined Microsoft in 1998.


“Bill Gates certainly held him in high esteem,” said Makhoul of BBN. “Gates thought of using speech and other modalities as part of the future of human interaction with computers, so Kai-Fu was clearly one of his top people.”


While at Apple, Lee recruited speech-technology expert Jerome Bellegarda from IBM.


Practical researcher


“His approach to speech recognition has always been to put it in the hands of people,” said Bellegarda, a distinguished scientist in speech and language technologies at Apple.


“His emphasis was on pushing for technology transfer as opposed to staying in the ivory tower and working on fine algorithms.”


Lee’s work culminated in a demonstration on national television in 1992 that gave the average consumer a glimpse of the technology’s potential. He issued spoken commands and the computer responded.


“It put the speech technologies on the map, without a doubt,” Bellegarda said.


Later, as Lee advanced up the corporate ladder, he began taking on more responsibilities in other areas, including indexing of multimedia, which has some applications for Internet search, Bellegarda said.


But Bellegarda thinks Lee’s value to Google has more to do with his experience in China than with specific technical expertise.


“What I think happened is that as he was building this research center in China for Microsoft, he probably developed many useful connections with the Chinese hierarchy and various Chinese research organizations,” Bellegarda said. “That’s the real pride here.


“He knows his way around what could be a real confusing maze. He could conceivably gain Google quite a bit of advantage in navigating those waters.”


For Lee, it was also a matter of feeling that his work made a difference.


“In China, I can help Chinese young people even more, and my work can have the most impact,” Lee wrote in the open letter on his Web site.


He described friends who had become burned out rejuvenate their careers at Google.


Through the new model Google represents, Lee writes with the idealism of its most zealous believers, “I can reach my full potential.”


“I walked into my boss’s office on July 5,” he concludes the letter. “The first thing I said was ‘I need to follow my heart.’ “


Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com


Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com