Alan Kay at Xerox PARC made a bold prediction in 1972 of a future “Dynabook” that everyone could afford, no bigger than a largish book, with a flat display and which has the power of a “PDP-10.” In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen set the goal of “a computer on every desk, in every home.” Microsoft software, such as BASIC, MS-DOS, Windows, Excel, Word, Office, and Internet Explorer were critical for the success of the PC revolution, not only by satisfying the customers but also by organizing an efficient ecosystem around “PC compatibility.” Without the ecosystem driving the economics, relying on the technology alone would have been much less dynamic.
I recall the time in February of 1981 when I first joined Microsoft. I was truly privileged to take part in the PC revolution, from just a glimmer of what was to come while I was at Xerox, and then at Microsoft creating the ecosystem leading to the universal acceptance of the mouse-based GUI interface and networking.
In 2002, I left Microsoft to pursue my special interest in programing productivity in a new company, Intentional Software. After considering a wide range of problems to tackle – and once Eric Anderson joined as CEO – we decided to focus our efforts on the development of a platform that is exceptional in its ability to represent, view, and interact with knowledge bases in general and heterogeneous distributed documents in particular. For the last two years, we were working closely with Microsoft to see if there are synergies between our technology and Microsoft’s plans, which eventually led to today’s acquisition announcement.
I am excited, stoked, amped, and elated to join forces again with Microsoft, the premier high-tech company in the world. I am very happy that after this deal is completed, the talented team at Intentional will have a fantastic new home to continue our work and contribute to great products. I want to share with you why I feel this way.
Now, more than 40 years after Alan Kay’s prediction, with Bill and Paul’s vision of PCs on every desktop fulfilled, and having experienced the bounty of Gordon Moore’s famous law of exponential progress, one might be tempted to conclude that further improvements will be gradual at best, and that the time for innovation might be over.
In fact, this is a very exciting time rivalling previous sea changes in the industry. The devices are getting better, especially new devices from Microsoft – the Surface Book, the Studio, and the Hub, for example. All these devices have multi touch and pen. And they can all communicate.
One can imagine many new use scenarios that cut across devices. Just like the scene in the movie “Avatar,” when a scientist walks by a wall-size display and sweeps some data from his handheld device onto the wall. We may have simulated “desktops” on our PC’s, but surely in real life we have many desktops, and many other surfaces(!) such as whiteboards, bulletin boards, clipboards, and PC displays where data can be present or moved. The PC desktop should not, and need not, remain a limiting metaphor.
Just think of any group of people interacting: a smaller group may be a meeting, a larger group may be a lecture. Different social rules apply to the participants in smaller and larger groups, but some things are universal: the ability to share some state, possibly contributing to the state, and making private notes. Research has shown that handwritten notes are more effective for learning and recall than typed notes, and for this reason pen computing will flourish whenever notetaking is required, especially when the devices are connected.
Real surfaces in the world can hold many forms of information, for instance: drawings, memos, messages, stickers, notes, or maps. I could use my pen to write over or mark up anything – only the fear of defacing important originals stops me from doing so more often. Similarly, the surfaces on the new devices should show all kinds of data side-by-side and interwoven as a universal surface. Interaction with the data could be directed by pointing, with pens, gestures and even voice. You would be “interacting with the documents” themselves rather than with apps as such.
Now combine these scenarios with the new capabilities in machine learning and knowledge representation. In the spreadsheet era, we had a very simple ontology, which was really divisions of data into types: numbers, text, and maybe dates. Since then, powerful web services emerged by giving these simple types more precise semantics: the text is a product to buy, the number is its price, or the text is the name of your friend and the number counts the “likes.” Even with just a handful of such “domain specific” terms the value of services to the user has already soared. Imagine then, the power of an ontology consisting of thousands of terms covering most of the common activities that comprise our personal and professional lives ranging from life transitions, education, entertainment, buying and selling. Curating and exploiting such an ontology will be as important as the hardware and software surfaces that activate it.
Given where we are, another sea change will require tremendous undertakings that only a company with the depth and breadth of Microsoft can bring to fruition. It will amount to reinventing productivity itself. I am very proud that Intentional technology will serve as a small, but important, part of this effort.
The Intentional platform can represent domain specific information both at the meta-level (as schemas) and at the content level (as data or rules). It has patterns for distributed interactive documents and for views for a universal surface. When combined with the existing Microsoft technologies and the future technologies that are under development there, the synergies will bring many futuristic scenarios to life.
On behalf of all the employees of Intentional who will be joining Microsoft, I can say that we are honored and humbled by this tremendous opportunity offered to us. We are ready to work together with our new colleagues to bring new compelling user experiences to market.