“The next big change will come from new ways of programming”



Craig Mundie works closely with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to assume
responsibility for the company’s research and incubation efforts. Mundie
previously held the position of Microsoft chief technical officer. Mundie joined
Microsoft in 1992 to create and run the Consumer Platforms Division, which was
responsible for developing non-PC platforms and service offerings such as
Windows CE, software for the handheld, Pocket and auto PCs, and telephony
products. Mundie also championed the Trustworthy Computing Initiative at
Microsoft. He was in India recently. The DATAQUEST team caught up with him to
take a look at what Microsoft’s research is focusing on, and what lies ahead.

What are the areas you focus on? I spend a lot my time thinking about
issues in say, a 3-15 year time horizon, and where to focus on coordinating the
action in the next one or two product release cycles.
Some of the biggest changes in the architecture of computing systems and how
we program them will probably arrive in the next three to five years. This is
the result of a long-term trend. In fact, in the physics of microprocessors,
we’re leaning more and more towards the multi-core computer. We are the
harbinger of a more aggressive movement for heterogeneous high core count chips
and single chip systems. These will have to be programmed in a different way in
order to get real benefits from them. Many other things that have provided
fairly easy evolution in software for the last 30-40 years are suddenly going to
get broken, in terms of needing to get more parallelism out of high-scale
applications. This would only come through from new ways of programming the
machine. So, a lot of our research for the last four or five years and a lot
more of development activity is now beginning a trend in that direction.

Another area that has been a big focus of mine, since I came to Microsoft 14
years ago, is lifestyle. Now, game consoles, automotive computing, and mobile
computing in handsets are a big phenomena, and Microsoft is evolving a more
balanced portfolio in the way that we address these things. Even in the
workplace, there is a requirement now for cohesion in the way that we address
the mobile market for information, communication, and data access, along with
traditional desktops or laptops. That environment has evolved. So, the next
topic is the way it is today and relevant now. You get security threats in
enterprise networks, and so, a great deal of emphasis has been placed for the
last five years in securing enterprise computing. Now, employees might want
access to any application on their cell phone and their home computer and from
wherever they happen to be. We actually have to contemplate a fairly dramatic
change in the nature of the enterprise network. That will really serve two
purposes-one is the creation of an environment where you can have anywhere
access for your employees; and the other is coupled with evolution and identity
systems to allow real-time collaboration across the enterprise boundary.

All of these trends represent probably the biggest collective set of changes,
which the industry will have to address in 10 or 15 years.

Do you think that 3-15 years is a manageable timeframe for growing
technology?
It is and it isn’t. Certainly as the time horizon starts, your ability to
predict accurately how things will evolve gets fuzzier. When we moved from DOS
to Windows, or when we went from the introduction of word processors to Word,
the process went on a period of five to nine years before they actually became
possible. When we did Windows NT, which became the basis of XP and now Vista,
that project started about 15 years ago. Fourteen years ago, we started work on
Windows CE, the first call, the watch, the first auto computer, the first
interactive television system-all of those things, which we produced the first
versions of when I was running those groups in the late 1990s, are only now
going into very large-scale deployment.

The time from when you can clearly see the technical direction to the time
that they reach strong deployment is actually much longer than most people
think. Somebody has to lay the foundation on which you can build the future
houses, and that falls to people in the company who think about the general
direction (of) the industry, who think about the natural evolution of
technology, and who are willing to do incubation that will explore from either a
technical or business point of view where things are likely to emerge.

Are there specific things which come to your mind, when you are looking at
that time? The fundamental re-architecting of the microprocessor, I think, is
the biggest change to come to the world of CPU in 30 years. That will be a major
transition for the semiconductor industry and for all the people who have to
program new things and make major systems. That has occupied a lot of my time
for the last five years already. I started the first formal work at Microsoft to
prepare for this evolution, even before we knew how Microsoft will choose to
make this change. Partly, it was possible for me, more than five years ago, to
know that this change would come, simply because you could look at the physics
and predict that at some point you could run out of clock speed but not out of
transistor scale. You could actually say, "I know that they are going to
hit this wall," and the only way forward is going into the other space. We
began to work and hit the space back before the wall actually appears. Now, I
think that was a good investment. Clearly, the world of devices will evolve in
quite interesting ways, the Pocket PC and Smartphones that we have today are
more powerful than many of the desktops only five years ago.

This great technology will continue to evolve quite dramatically, and that
will create a lot change in the way people interact. One (change) that’s going
to happen is the modality of interaction with machines, to more like ‘talking’.
We are contextually aware, our gaze matters, nonverbal cues matter. We haven’t
even got the word interaction to be very good yet. We will see machine vision,
speech synthesis and recognition soon. We have been working in every one of the
areas I mentioned for 5-10 years already in the research group.

So, after 15 years of so, we might have a product from Microsoft where two
computers could talk to each other like two human beings?
Yes, although I am more interested in having it easy for the human being to
talk to the computer. Computers can talk to each other pretty effectively within
the domain of discourse of the machine.

It’s like speaking to the computer?
Yes, software would transcribe everything. We can feed in Excel spreadsheets
a hundred times faster. For most people at their desk that would not make that
much of a difference; it’s already very fast. Yet, if you intersect this power
to where it was aware of what I wanted to do, or maybe could anticipate things
that I would like to have done, and make it more like a great human assistant,
the utility of the machine might be a quantum higher.

For the global software industry, the challenge will be (that) if we are
going to see this nonlinear increase in the capability of the hardware, how do
we harness it and what task do we put it to. Many times, I talk to people and
they think that mostly all the problems have been solved with computing. The
reality is very few of them have been solved in terms of what will make these
machines more useful.

This is very interesting. I think the impression you’re giving is that,
perhaps, users don’t need such fast machines, but they need the application. Are
you saying that users’ expectations are likely to come down in the future?
No, I think it is always the case if you go and ask people what they want.
They can either only talk about it is at such a high level of abstraction that
it’s hard to implement or they will try to extrapolate from the things they know
so well. But the real breakthrough is in the middle zone, where these things
provide a pleasant surprise to the consuming public when they are afforded the
opportunity to get them. But prior to their availability, they never would have
asked for them or predicted that they would require them.

The
computers can talk to each other pretty effectively. But, I am more
interested in having it easy for the human being to talk to the computer

Computing, as we know it today, has already transformed the global society.
And yet, my belief is that many of the challenges that the global society will
face will ultimately only be solved through the use of advanced information
technology. So, whether it is disease or education or climate, the way it is
ultimately going to get grasped is somehow through the use of very sophisticated
technology.

Today, all of us in this industry have made a very fine business by only
selling to the billion richest people on the planet. There are another five and
a half billion people, who are not using these things at all. If we could just
bring what we have today down the rest of the way into the society globally, we
would clearly make a big difference. There are many opportunities in both these
dimensions of taking what we already know and finding a way to use the advances
to make them generally more available. There are classes of problems, whether
they are in the technical domain or just usability, which will be addressed by
conceptually different ways of writing software.

How much of your work is involved in working out the actual product map?
The research work in the company in many ways, leads us to new businesses,
new products, or new features and we’ve got a fairly good process now to flow
these things from research activity into the business field. The individual
business groups also do some incubation and advanced development work, where
they think about things that will be in the product line and the roadmap that
will be beyond the releases that they are currently working on. In the zone that
is beyond the next release, you could get contribution in three different ways.
You could get contribution from the product group itself, you can get the
contribution from the research activity, or you can get strategic input from me
or Bill (Gates) or Ray (Ozzie) or other quarters in the company at the
management level. I would like us to move in a particular direction. When I talk
about my work as being strategy, policy and incubation and research, with the
exception of policy, any of those things could affect the company’s roadmap on a
time horizon that is several years or more in the future.

You also license out some of that research; there was some work in
graphics that you licensed out to Softedge in Ireland. It started a year ago.
How do you pick on a project to license out?
For the most part, the license of today is fairly narrow. When we find an
intersection between a company which wants to work in an area, and a particular
research technology that may not have direct applicability for Microsoft-or
maybe there’s some time before we would get around to using it-we have expressed
the willingness to consider licensing that. Broadly, we are willing to license
the majority of things that are in our IP portfolio, but we don’t aggressively
go out and try to seek license for all of it.

Would you license technologies that are used in your products? 
Occasionally. Generally, we try not to license the application that we would
think would be directly competitive, because that creates an unnecessary degree
of conflict. But often, we invent some technology where its main use may be a
particular product line of Microsoft, but (it) has alternative applications that
we deem to be outside of our line of business. So, we might find both an
internal use and a non-competing external use.

Vista has been an enormous, complex piece of software which has been
delayed. Open source has an alternative model which is much faster, though it
might have its disadvantages. What do you feel is the future, as far as the next
versions of Office and Vista are concerned?
We will talk more broadly about this complexity problem. Microsoft has been
working consistently for quite a few years to balance our advancement in the
tools necessary to manage the complexity at each level as the system has grown.
To some extent, the complexity tends to grow in a nonlinear way. Historically,
our ability and other people’s ability to deal with that complexity through the
use of tools and training, only grows linearly. It’s a question as to whether
those cross over or not, but clearly, it has become more and more challenging.
There will be large-scale systems in a way that meet people’s requirements
relative to the trustworthy and reliability aspect to provide security, privacy
and availability. When I talk about the need to construct systems in a different
way, I don’t think that the issue at hand is whether you happen to be using a
community process or not. Look at security as one example. A few years ago,
everybody said the community developed software is going to be inherently more
secure. We said that’s great, because the class of security flaws that are
evolving today require experts to analyze codes; a casual observer, if presented
with the code, will not know that it is susceptible to flaws. History has now
shown that’s true; many flaws are emerging, whether it’s an Apple system or
Linux system or even other application level systems. We find there are many
other things to susceptibility.

So, the problem is that no matter who is writing it and what process you are
using to manage it, software is still too much of an art form and too little of
an engineering process. Almost every other form of engineering gradually goes
through this evolution. That is why you can build big buildings and bridges and
skyscrapers, and things that don’t fall over. Yet, everybody doesn’t know
everything about the building process. We don’t have that level of competition
yet in software. So, my personal belief is that the next big change has to come
through the introduction of programming methodology that will guarantee
composability and that will allow us to reason mechanically about different
aspects of large-scale proper systems in a way that is not possible today. We
have seen in Vista an outgrowth of our security efforts and trustworthy
computing. We have begun to move our development process in this direction.

You have enormous challenges every time you launch your product and in
getting people to upgrade. Does that call for a model shift in the way you
distribute software? 
Yes and no. When Microsoft was offering software that met the then
requirements on a local execution basis, the model we had was fine. Today, we
say that almost every product we have is software plus service. That is very
different from saying software and service. The more we’ve thought about it, the
more we’re certain that it is more likely to reach a steady state where you have
local software running in conjunction with global services. That would be true
whether the network had intermittent connectivity or persistent connectivity.

The reason is largely along the lines I was just talking about. (That) is, as
the power of the client computer increases, the class of things that I want it
to do for me, may move in a direction that make it less and less likely that you
could centralize that function, either just due to the computational part or the
communication part. I see these trends coming in the computational capability
when put on the desktop, will allow a quantum change in what I can expect from
the local device. That, in fact, can then work in conjunction with the
integrated services within the cloud. Then, you get a compelling solution.

My own belief is that we do have to make it easier to deploy our software,
but that deployment will be in service of getting into the configuration; there
is sophisticated software that runs local to the device and works in conjunction
with the Internet-based web scale services or local enterprise-related services.
Today, the whole process of developing, downloading and installing is too heavy
weight. A lot of the company’s engineering efforts are moving to make that more
streamlined. If you look at the enterprise where we can do this, where we know
what the physical infrastructure and the network infrastructure is, we are
already moving to more automation and updating management. If you look at the
things like One Care services are starting to offer consumers in their homes,
it’s like having a rental IT department for your house.

There can be many issues of deploying and security, and antivirus and other
things, all are from a service that is provided. Over time, we will see a set of
programming capabilities that are optimized for this light-weight component-wise
updating or installation of capabilities that come through. But that will be a
fairly gradual transition.

Microsoft is already engaged in a global campaign against piracy. From the
technology standpoint, what is the role that technology plays in terms of
addressing it?
It is a big business issue for us in many countries. For many years, there
has been a fine balancing act between putting a large burden on the bulk of the
users in order to restrict the piracy level. Technology has evolved to the point
particularly because of network connectivity, where we can do more things to
validate which versions were legitimately acquired and which were not, and
trying to impose very little burden on legitimate users and a slightly higher
penalty on people that use pirated versions of the product.

But in general, we are very concerned now, in high piracy environments, about
issues like security. We know in many countries a lot of pirated software comes
through pre built-in box, and spyware and other things (are) already crooking
fingers into the software. Many people are beginning to realize that they may
want some assurance if they think they paid for some software; they want to be
sure that they got a genuine version and (that) they don’t have a lot of these
problems. So, we are trying to put mechanisms to provide those assurances over
time. But, at the end of the day, it is more or less about the value proposition
that the company has.

Another big effort here in India, has been to evolve our business model
through the product. Many people would say that part of the reason for piracy is
that the company and the industry have not found a good way to deal with the
affordability question. So, a lot of our efforts are going into trying and make
offers, (that) allow these products or the business model of the product to deal
more directly with the affordability question, with the assumption that people
say "I’d rather have the comfort of buying authentic products but you have
to put them in a configuration where I can afford to do it". So, things
like this ‘pay as you go’ technology, where people can pay for as much as they
pay for their cell phone using a prepaid card is an example. We have done
engineering that builds a delivery capability to support that alternative
business model.

We are working hard to deal with these things holistically, and not just
enforcement action. But again, for the most part, we would like to have
enforcement action targeted only at the large scale commercial pirates. We hope
to deviate those who are into casual piracy or low-level piracy, through offers
that make the products more financially affordable or attractive.

There are people who have moved into IT in the last few years and don’t
know what DOS is. Is there a possibility that ten years later, people won’t know
what Windows is? You moved from DOS to Windows. As something new comes up, you
might call it Sky or Doors. 
I don’t know what will happen to the brand, but I certainly think because
the brand has now expanded into some service component?mobile phone, product,
desktop or service component-the brand may survive longer than the particular
capability that people know of today.

When people moved from DOS to Windows, what they really gained was the move
from a character mode interface to a graphical user interface, and that was so
compelling that people left the character mode interface behind completely. If
there is a user interface change that would be so significant in the way that
people interacted with the machine, they would leave behind the point-and-click
model of computer action. The only high-bandwidth input and output system for
people is the visual system. So, screens are going to continue to be very
important even in the case where we would have alternative ways of interacting
with the computer. But, whether we call it Windows, or as you said, Doors or Sky
or something else, I don’t know.

We will see the introduction of profound changes in the way people interact
with the computer systems; whether that will be powerful enough for people a
decade from now to say, "I don’t even know what it was like to work in
Windows", I don’t know. I do believe that 10 or 15 years from now, most
people’s interaction will not be something that they call a computer. It could
be a phone or a television or game console or their car. Most of the computers
in your life in the future, you will not address them as computers. We will
still talk about laptop computers and desktop computers; they will be in the
minority in 10 or 15 years.

Zia Askari, Ibrahim Ahmad
and Prasanto K Roy

maildqindia@cybermedia.co.in

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