Microsoft's Mundie Muses on Future of Computing

Microsoft's chief researcher discusses the future of computing, but where's the beef?

LAS VEGAS-The evolution of parallel programming in software will lead to new modes of computing over the next several years, according to Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie.

Mundie discussed the future of computing and what his research team at Microsoft is doing to contribute to it during a keynote interview at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo here April 9.

The interview was moderated by Gartner server analyst Carl Claunch, who failed to pose challenging questions to Mundie, such as what the software vendor is working on to combat Google's, IBM's or Yahoo's advances in cloud computing.

On his chosen topic, Mundie cited as an example the case of five college programmers in Bangkok, Thailand, who won Microsoft's last global Imagine Cup challenge. To demonstrate how they could use computers to improve education, the students built a book translation and reading system so students in Thailand could read books that were otherwise inaccessible to them.

Mundie said the prototype system invoked a whole level of abstraction from Microsoft's collection of Web services that Microsoft doesn't even touch at this point.

"Software has always been about increasing the level of abstraction," Mundie said. "I think that we're about to see another escalation in this level of abstraction and the emergence of a global [community] of programmers that think at this higher level."

Moreover, he said, desktops, handheld computing gadgets and smart phones are getting to the point where they can be leveraged as part of a large-scale system. These devices will be part of a model-driven architecture that employs different computing modalities.

Now Plugging: Surface and Photosynth

For example, Mundie discussed Surface, a Microsoft product that puts Windows Vista inside a literal desktop surface to let users manipulate digital content with natural motions, such as hand gestures.

This sort of real-world-meets-virtual-reality approach will become more common, with Surface becoming part of a smart phone, such as an Apple iPhone, he said; the hybridization of touch and speech with the new graphical ways of presenting information will move the space forward.

Mundie also plugged Photosynth, a piece of software in Microsoft Live Labs that takes a large collection of photos of a place or an object, analyzes them for similarities in spatial relationship, and displays them in a three-dimensional model.

Users can then take the images and extract picture elements from them and paste them onto the 3-D model, rendering a 3-D model that is painted like the real world with actual photos, but is designed to be dropped into a virtual world users can manipulate.

These products are no doubt interesting, but failed to stimulate the kind of interest that could have been found in a conversation about what Microsoft's research unit is doing to address competitive advances by Google, and others.

For example, Claunch did not ask a question about Microsoft's Dryad, an experimental platform that lets programmers use a computer cluster or a data center for running parallel programs. Dryad will let developers run thousands of multicore machines without knowing anything about concurrent programming.

Microsoft is clearly confident that Dryad, despite its nascent status, is superior to Google's MapReduce. In its note on Dryad, the company's engineers wrote, "It completely subsumes other computation frameworks, such as Google's [MapReduce] or the relational algebra."