On a gray afternoon last October, I sat down with Simonyi in Bellevue, WA, in front of two adjacent screens in his office at Intentional Software, the company that he founded after he left Microsoft in 2002 to develop and commercialize his big idea. Simonyi was racing me through a presentation he was preparing for an upcoming conference; he used Microsoft Office PowerPoint slides to outline his vision for the proposed great leap forward in programming. He was in the middle of moving one slide around when the application just stopped responding.
In the corner of the left-hand screen, a goggle-eyed paper clip popped up: the widely reviled “Office Assistant” that Microsoft introduced in 1997. Simonyi tried to ignore the cartoon aide’s antic fidgeting, but he was stymied. “Nothing is working,” he sighed. “That’s because Clippy is giving me some help.”
I was puzzled. “You mean you haven’t turned Clippy off?” Long ago, I’d hunted through Office’s menus and checked whichever box was required to throttle the annoying anthropomorph once and for all.
“I don’t know how,” Simonyi admitted, with a little laugh that seemed to say, Yes, I know, isn’t it ironic?
It was. Simonyi spent years leading the applications teams at Microsoft, the developers of Word and Excel, whose products are used every day by tens of millions of people. He is widely regarded as the father of Microsoft Word. (I am, of course, using Word to write these sentences.) Could Charles Simonyi have met his match in Clippy?
Simonyi stared at his adversary, as if locked in telepathic combat. Then he turned to me, blue eyes shining. “I need a helper: a Super-Clippy to show me where to turn him off!” Simonyi was hankering for a meta-Clippy.
In 2004, Simonyi proposed his own law: “Anything that can be done could be done ‘meta.’” In his younger days–when he’d grandiosely named a project “Simonyi’s Infinitely Glorious Network”–he would probably have been more arrogant: “Anything you can do, I can do meta!” But like many prodigies who have done well and aged well, Simonyi has learned to cut his cockiness with touches of humility and grace. A decade ago, he described himself as “a shaggy-looking guy with a foreign accent.” He favors black turtlenecks and double-breasted blazers. With his upright posture and square face, a shock of dark hair combed forward over his forehead, he is often said to resemble a larger-boned Napoleon.
Intentional software is a grand scheme in a field where grand schemes have seldom worked. Every previous innovation introduced as a complete solution to software’s woes has ended up providing no more than modest, incremental improvements. But Simonyi brims with the confidence of a self-made immigrant who’s always had a firm grip on his own bootstraps. In a photo that hangs over his desk, he is standing in the White House beneath a portrait of Ronald Reagan. His broad grin mirrors the president’s. The caption reads “The Two Optimists.”
The offices of Simonyi’s new company occupy a suite in a sleek glass skyscraper, and if you lean into the window and look down you can see the roof of the squat, nondescript white building that housed his first office at Microsoft, back in 1981. (It’s a bank now.) Since then, Microsoft has grown beyond all recognition. The software industry has transformed the world. So why would Simonyi set out to rewrite all its rules? The problem is so big it seems part of the settled order of things. Simonyi’s proposed solution could take decades to complete, and his critics are intensely skeptical. No one is asking him to leave behind the known routines of programming and strike off for a new world. But such migrations have paid off for him in the past.