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

3/9/10Follow @gthuang

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 heading. He professed unfamiliarity with the details of Apple’s iPad, and said PCs will “probably not all be tablets. There are good reasons for keyboards. Until we can talk to computers.”

Which made me ask, who really wants to talk to their computer? “The thing I’d really like to talk to is my phone,” he admits. “There should be systems at the other end, maybe the cloud, that understand what I’m saying.”

So Thacker has been thinking a lot about the mobile sector, even as Microsoft reinvents itself there (with its new Windows Phone 7 operating system). “The phone is built for listening and responding to audio,” he says. He was talking with a Microsoft colleague yesterday about this, he says, and “the observation I made is that of all the phones, the ones that are actually smartphones are a relatively small percentage. The ones that have traction in the world are the simple ones.” So maybe it’s possible, he says, to make a “somewhat smarter” phone, without all the bells and whistles, through software.

A profile of Thacker on Microsoft’s website details a storied career beginning with his aspirations of building particle accelerators to study physics; becoming a founding member of Xerox PARC , DEC’s Systems Research Center, and Microsoft Research Cambridge (he joined the company in 1997); and his current work at Microsoft Research Silicon Valley. One nugget is his response to someone asking him what he has done for Microsoft lately: “You don’t understand,” he said. “The most impact I’ve had on Microsoft was work that was done before Microsoft even existed, when Bill [Gates] was in short pants.” (Another nugget, for us locals, is why he hasn’t wanted to live in Boston or Seattle.)

Lastly, I asked Thacker a couple of deeper questions.

The big question he’d want to ask the God of technology, if he could ask only one: “What’s after silicon?”

And, given his interest in particle accelerators, what does he think physicists will find at the experiments being conducted at the Large Hadron Collider (how matter gets its mass, perhaps, or what the universe is made of?): “I suspect there’ll be surprises,” is all he would say.

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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