“The Computer is an Amplifier for Your Brain”

REDMOND, Wash., Oct. 10, 2000 — To commemorate the company’s 25th anniversary, Microsoft this month published Inside Out , a book written by and for Microsoft employees that highlights the products, people and culture that transformed Bill Gates’ and Paul Allen’s vision for personal computing into reality. Featuring new essays by Gates and individual stories from hundreds of current and former Microsoft employees, the book provides personal anecdotes of triumph and failure, facts and trivia, and a look ahead to the company’s next 25 years.

Throughout the week, PressPass will publish excerpts and photographs from the book; in the story below, Craig Mundie, Microsoft’s senior vice president of consumer strategy, shares his thoughts on how technology could transform everyday life.

Craig Mundie, Senior Vice President, Consumer Strategy I’ve always been into gadgets. I had one of those big, bulky Motorola cell phones when they came out, I took a suitcase-sized portable PChome every day in the early ’80s, and I bought every palm-sized computing device from the first Palm Pilot to the latest Pocket PC.

When I came to Microsoft in 1992 to help develop the architecture and products that would take us into the non-PC world, my 15-year-old daughter decided to stay in Boston and finish school. That was traumatic for my wife and me to leave our only child in a boarding school thousands of miles away. But I had a pager and she had a pager, and we used them to stay in touch, whether it was during a crisis or when we just wanted to talk.

That was one of the things that convinced me that we can make people’s lives better by making our computers and electronic devices smarter and more connected. Now that the Internet has entered the public consciousness, I think we’re in a position to give the kind of closeness and convenience my family had to the whole world.

What I think about each day at Microsoft is how we can help embed computing and communications into the devices we use every day, from your cell phone to your washing machine. Part of my job is to think about what people do every day, how they use technology now, how they could be using it in the future, and what Microsoft can do to help make it happen.

You can break down how people use technology into three major categories. The first is communication: writing e-mail, making phone calls, chatting on line. The second is productivity and convenience: keeping track of budgets, managing schedules. The third is entertainment: games, books, music, and movies.

When I think of it that way, I realize that we have an incredible opportunity to take advantage of the tremendous increases in processing power, rich devices, and powerful networking to write software that can give people a unified experience across any device and help enhance their computing experience in all these scenarios.

A lot of everyday activities are complicated, but people need to do them to live. Take groceries, for example. You have a diverse set of things you buy to eat and drink, and you have preferences that change over time. Is there a better way to have computers help you with the process of keeping track of what you need and making sure you get it? Since almost everything you buy at the grocery store has a bar code, you could scan everything when you buy and consume it. But that’s hard. Maybe you’ll forget to scan things, or you’ll scan them twice. It’s not very practical.

But what if computers could do this passively? Imagine that everything you buy has smart packaging, and sensors in your pantry, refrigerator, trash compactor, and recycle bins keep track of everything as it comes and goes. The computer can say things like,
“Hey, Craig, you seem to go through a six-pack of Coke every day. Do you want me to make sure you never run out?”
And if I say yes, it will automatically schedule an order with the grocer, check my family calendar for the best time to deliver, and send confirmations and reminders to my television or my cell phone or my Pocket PC. I won’t have to spend as much time at the grocery store, and I won’t have to worry about not having what I need when I need it.

Once you get this kind of technology going, you can apply it to other activities, like washing clothes. Today, most clothing has an itty-bitty label with washing instructions, which most people never look at. If the label were smart, you could design a washing machine with two buttons: Wash and Dry. It could tell you if you put a red shirt in with the white load, automatically use the right temperature water and the right amount of soap, and do water chemistry tests to decide when the clothes are clean.

Outside the home, another place where computing will really have an impact is in the car. We’ve already seen computers make a big difference in the primary function of the car — getting you from one place to another economically and safely. Computers already regulate the engine and safety features, cell phones are commonplace in the car, and the current trend is computers that help with navigation. But the reality is that most of the driving you do is to places you’ve already been. You don’t need a map for that. You want to avoid the aggravation of being in traffic. A rich, connected computer in the car can obviously help.

But there’s another function of the car–for passengers, it’s a
“living room on wheels.”
So all the entertainment activities you do in the home will find their way into the car. Initially, you might think of your garage as a
“docking station”
for the car. Just as you dock your Pocket PC to exchange information with your desktop PC, your car will retrieve all the movies, books, games, and music you’ll need for the long drive to Grandma’s.

People have always talked about scenarios like this, but today we’re in a position to turn them from the kind of thing you’d see on The Jetsons into something that’s part of everyday life. But in order for this to happen, we need to solve a few problems.

The first major hurdle is simplicity. As computers have become more powerful, they’ve also become more complex. In business, we’ve relied on trained professionals to manage that complexity. But as the Internet starts connecting these computers, and as computers and computerized appliances become more prevalent in the home, they need to become more autonomous: you can’t have a CIO for the home, and you can’t have a CIO for the world, either. So we need to find ways to help computers and software install, organize, and repair themselves.

Another big hurdle is security and identity. Today, you have a lot of different ways to identify yourself, such as your driver’s license or your passport. And you have ways to confer authority to do things, such as a credit card or a set of keys. There is also a loose coupling between yourself and these things, through your face or your signature. In the computer world, we need to come up with the equivalent of a signature and all the different documents that confer authority. Encryption is an important part of the way we can produce these documents and signatures, and for identification we have smart cards plus
“biometric”
systems such as iris or fingerprint scanners. Eventually, we’ll see passive systems that can recognize who you are and act accordingly. Basically, when computers get to the point where they can hear, speak, and see, many of the things people depend on to establish identity, context, and trust will find their way into computers as well.

If people are going to accept computing in their lives, computers can’t get in the way. Aesthetics matter, both in terms of the way devices look and the way you use them. We need to make computers less intrusive, easier to use, and more compatible with the way people live. It’s important to give people the right interface for the right device. For example, you can’t take the Windows desktop and apply it to a television or a car or a cell phone. The way you use a PC with a mouse and keyboard wouldn’t be appropriate. At the same time, we don’t want to create each experience without regard to the whole spectrum of devices–if we do that, we’ll end up with the
“six remote controls”
problem.

The benefits of a networked world in which computers are embedded into everything in your life and connected to everything else may seem small when you think in terms of the individual. But if you think on the scale of millions of people, the benefits are amplified. For example, if more people did their laundry efficiently, their clothes would last longer and we’d have less soapy water dumped into the environment. And if people used smart packaging and
“just in time”
ordering for their groceries, they’d make fewer trips to the store, use less gas, and probably waste a lot less food. And the benefits of broader communication are clear, from families and friends staying in touch, to kids having access to all the world’s knowledge, to people joining together not by nationality but by their common interests.

In many ways, we really don’t know what impact this technology will have on the world. Computers today are about 50 years behind the electric motor in terms of development and deployment. In the early 1900s, an electric motor wouldn’t fit in your living room. But today, we’ve got motors so small that they could power medical instruments that fit in your bloodstream. The people who made the first electric motor could never have predicted that.

Just as an electric motor is an amplifier for your muscles–it enables you to physically do more–the computer is an amplifier for your brain. And it’s hard to predict exactly what we’ll do with that power. I like to think that by creating the software that makes the most of this power, we’re ultimately going to make a big, positive difference in the world.