Chuck Thacker of Microsoft Research Wins Turing Award, Talks Future of Mobile Interfaces

One of the founding fathers of the personal computing era, Microsoft Research technical fellow Chuck Thacker, has won the Association for Computing Machinery’s A.M. Turing Award, which is often called the “Nobel Prize of computer science.” The award, which was announced today, comes with a $250,000 prize, sponsored by Intel and Google.

Thacker, 67, was awarded the prize for his design of the Alto, the first modern personal computer with networking capabilities, which he built while at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1970s. It had a TV-like display, which enabled the development of the modern graphical user interface, as well as connections to outside devices like servers and printers. Although the Alto was never commercialized, it influenced generations of PCs in the decades that followed. Thacker was also cited for his contributions to the Ethernet local-area network, the first multiprocessor workstation, and a tablet PC prototype.

I spoke with Thacker by phone this morning—he’s based at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley. “I was actually flabbergasted when I was told” about the award, he says. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d win.” That’s because the Turing Award traditionally has been given to theoreticians or software experts, not hardware people. The previous Microsoft winners of the Turing Award are the late Jim Gray, Butler Lampson of Microsoft Research New England, and Tony Hoare of Microsoft Research Cambridge in the U.K. (Thacker is also a recipient of the Charles Stark Draper Prize and the John von Neumann Medal from the IEEE.)

Thacker says the most interesting thing about the Alto computer was that “it was a complete system.” It connected to servers that stored information remotely and to printers that produced documents. Although the hardware looked “quaint” by today’s standards, he says, the software behind it persisted. In particular, the user interface—keyboard, mouse, how you interact with programs—looked a lot like what we still use today.

So I asked him how he thinks computing interfaces might evolve in the future, given how little they’ve changed in 30 years. Thacker says he thinks about it from the point of view of what computers have not been able to do so far. “One thing I can’t do yet is talk to my computer,” he says. “I can’t carry on a conversation, and I’d like to see that.”

A second area of intrigue is computer-controlled cars and transportation. “I’m not that great a driver. The dents in my door demonstrate that,” Thacker says. “Computers should drive.” (He says he has followed the DARPA Grand Challenge competitions for driverless vehicles for the past few years.)

Given his work at Microsoft Research in tablet computing in the late 1990s—which helped lead to Microsoft’s first Tablet PC—I asked Thacker where he sees the field … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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