Rick Rashid, who has directed Microsoft Research since the early 1990s, recently visited MIT and talked to Technology Review’s editor in chief about the future of computing. Before joining Microsoft, Rashid was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s most famous for his work on the Mach operating-system kernel, which influenced the development of the NeXTStep OS that powered NeXT’s black computers, which in turn influenced the current MacOS X.
Technology Review: Why can’t Microsoft Research, with its large budget, devise new and compelling interfaces and experiences for personal computers?
Rick Rashid: I reject the premise of the question. Anyone who is using PCs today has a very different experience than they did ten years ago, or even five years. My wife, for example, almost exclusively interacts with her extended family using the MSN voice and video, so she’s video-calling with her sister nearly every day. That’s new and compelling. Or think about how people use music. That’s all enabled by new PC technologies, like peer-to-peer networking. We’ve introduced handwriting and ink to the TabletPC, which has changed the way a lot of people, particularly in the academic community, use their computers. All the Web 2.0 stuff, all the dynamic HTML, came out of Microsoft in the ’90s. Consider the way we’ve extended the use of 3-D capabilities in Vista [the newest version of Windows]. That’s new, too. There’s a very common trap for people of a certain age to say, “There’s nothing new in the world, and the golden age was in the past.” And it’s not true.
TR: Let me try another tack. Why isn’t PC software better than it is? Why does so little PC software possess the simple, elegant properties of products like the Apple iPod?
RR: I would pose the question a little differently. I would ask, Why do most consumer interfaces work so badly? I would challenge most people to program the time on their DVD player. That’s a pretty hidden piece of functionality. But to directly answer your question, I would say you have upwards of 800 million people using PCs today, so the software can’t be that bad.
You have people using PCs for many different purposes with many different levels of education. I think one of the challenges that a company like Microsoft has is that our technology is used so very broadly. We have to be concerned about how our interfaces are used around the world and by people of very different capabilities. When you have to build an operating system that must work with people with a broad range of disabilities and from a broad range of cultures, that really changes how you design in a profound way.
To address your crack about the iPod … You can look at something like an iPod and, sure, it’s great, but what does an iPod actually do? Not very much. In short, when you design interfaces for a broad range of people for a machine that does a lot, you either have to overload the interface with features or underload it. Neither is very satisfactory.
TR: Wouldn’t the best interface, then, adapt itself to its user’s capabilities and tasks?
RR: Oh, absolutely! You can see a little of it with our interfaces today. In various Microsoft applications today we have systems that dynamically adapt their menus based on usage patterns. For instance, they depopulate the menus they know are not being used. We’re taking the baby steps into personalization. On the Web, for instance, the minute you log on to Amazon, they know something about you. When people ask me, “What are you going to do with the new processing power and memory over the next 10 years?” I think: dynamic personalization.