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Update Microsoft is moving to slap a gagging order on an ex-vice president hired by Google, ostensibly to protect trade secrets.

Microsoft has filed a suit against Google and former vice president of Natural Interactive Services Division (NISD) Dr. Kai-Fu Lee, who has been recruited by Google to head-up the company’s new R&D operations in China. Lee founded Microsoft’s own R&D operations in China before serving as VP of NISD.

Microsoft said in a statement: “As a senior executive, Dr. Lee has direct knowledge of Microsoft’s trade secrets concerning search technologies and China business strategies. He has accepted a position focused on the same set of technologies and strategies for a direct competitor in egregious violation of his explicit contractual obligations.

“We are asking the court to require Dr. Lee and Google to honor the confidentiality and non-compete agreements he signed when he began working at Microsoft."

Microsoft has a history of saber rattling to protect trade secrets. In 2001, Microsoft accused 21 former employees of web services start-up Crossgain who'd served with Microsoft of violating non-compete agreements. Among them was Microsoft's former vice president of developer marketing Tod Nielsen and Adam Bosworth, who held several key positions at Microsoft and helped develop Internet Explorer, and who was co-founder of Crossgain.

The executives quit to take the heat off Crossgain, a move that helped kill the company’s market value and opened the door to take-over by Java application server and middleware vendor BEA Systems.

Ironically, Bosworth is also now at Google as a vice president, having quit BEA last year as the company’s chief architect.

Google's grab for Lee and Microsoft comes at a sensitive competitive time between the companies. Microsoft is ramping up both the rhetoric and delivery plans for improved search in Windows. Microsoft has promised improved desktop, application and online search with Longhorn and Office 12.

"The opening of an R&D center in China will strengthen Google's efforts in delivering the best search experience to our users and partners," Google said in a statement before news broke of Microsoft’s legal action.

By opening a facility in China, Google added it was making a "strong commitment" to attracting and developing local talent and partnering with Chinese universities and institutions.®

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