Tasktop Finds Path to Profits, Via a More Efficient Interface Inspired by Brain Science

11/2/09Follow @gthuang

For Mik Kersten, it all started when he saw Maria Klawe speak at the University of British Columbia. It was the mid-1990s, and Klawe, a distinguished mathematician and computer scientist—now the president of Harvey Mudd College and recently appointed to Microsoft’s board of directors—was giving a lecture to students and faculty. “She talked about her hippie days traveling in India, and it convinced me to switch to computer science,” Kersten says.

Kersten was an undergrad at UBC studying anthropology. Today, he is the co-founder and CEO of Tasktop Technologies, a Vancouver, BC-based startup that is working to reinvent user interfaces for software developers and other knowledge workers so they can be much more productive. It is one of those quiet Northwest success stories you probably haven’t heard much about yet, but you will—Tasktop is profitable, and has recently signed a number of important deals with the likes of IBM and Microsoft.

The company’s basic idea is to organize work around tasks, instead of files, folders, or Web pages. Kersten’s “task-focused interface” builds tools and information around the specific task you are trying to accomplish—writing code to import digital media into a library, say, or analyzing trends in a database. Tasktop’s software automatically gathers screenshots, notes, e-mails, and other information related to the task at hand and puts it on your desktop in a single handy spot for reference. If you come back to the task an hour later, or a week later, your desktop is returned to where you left off.

It’s a far cry from the way most people work on tasks today, using tools that are glorified Windows Explorer or Mac Finder applications, or Outlook or Google search tools that make you scroll through tons of results, Kersten says. As a software engineer himself, he had felt quite a bit of personal pain. “I was getting bad RSI [repetitive strain injury] in my forearms,” he says. “I was spending more time looking for the information I needed to write code than actual coding.”

Kersten’s early career path took him to Palo Alto Research Center (formerly Xerox PARC) in Silicon Valley, where he worked on user interfaces until 2003. There, he was exposed to a technology called “degree of interest trees.” This is a type of interface that lets you navigate large, branching structures of information. The amount of detail displayed is based on your level of interest in each item, so you don’t get swamped with lots of information about low-priority matters. As Kersten explains, this “makes it easier for programmers to work with very complex systems”—like having to refer to millions of lines of code, or search through 100,000 files. “Programmers get completely overloaded with information,” he says. “It’s extremely difficult to find what they’re looking for.”

After a six-month stint at Bellevue, WA-based Intentional Software (billionaire Charles Simonyi’s company), Kersten decided to quit industry to do fundamental research on how to improve … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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