Google engineers are famously encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on side projects. The free time is a morale booster for Google employees, ensuring that they get time to “work on what they’re really passionate about,” according to the Google job page. Google’s 20% projects have yielded some amazing results, such as Orkut, Adsense for Content, and most famously Gmail.

Microsoft’s Office Labs takes a page from the Google playbook by allowing anyone who works at Microsoft to submit ideas to the Labs team for prototyping. “[Office Labs] is a proving ground for ideas that come from regular employees and interns who work anywhere in Microsoft,” says the company of the research department which produces product prototypes for web apps, desktop apps, and software + services hybrids.

Yesterday Microsoft launched the first of those community projects, a downloadable application and web page launcher called Speed Launch that works with Windows Vista and Windows XP.

The software itself isn’t very remarkable at this early stage — the Enso Launcher from Humanized, for example, puts it to shame in my opinion — but that’s not what makes it interesting. What makes Speed Launch interesting is who is behind it. The idea for the launcher application originated with Matt Dyor, according to Todd Bishop of the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Dyor is unique among Microsoft employees who create software for the company in that he’s not a developer — he’s a patent lawyer.

Along with David Craig, who works in Microsoft’s IT department, the pair developed Speed Launch in their spare time over the past year before bringing it to the Office Labs team for further refinement. Also unique for software development at a large company? Dyor and Craig have never met — one works in Redmond, Washington, while the other works in Texas. All development was done remotely.

Unlike Google, Microsoft doesn’t give most employees the option to work on side projects while on company time — hence why Speed Launch was developed by Dyor and Craig in their spare time over lunch and after work. But the encouragement of such community projects by non-engineer employees through the Office Labs team is step in that direction.

Josh Catone joined Mashable in May 2009 and is Executive Director of Editorial Projects. Before joining Mashable, Josh was the Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb, the Lead Blogger at SitePoint, and the Community Evangelist at DandyID.

  • NRG77

    Very interesting and quite motivating. It is actually very smart idea to allow employees to share their own ideas thus making everyone more productive and a sense of participation.

    What I want to know is what incentives will they receive if a prototype became live?

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