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

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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.

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Editor in chief. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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