November 09, 2007
Information At Your Fingertips
This week back in 1990, Bill Gates opened Comdex promising "a crusade" to make computers more useful. His tagline, "Information At Your Fingertips" would become the leaderships' vision for Microsoft for a generation....
Bill's Big Idea
The idea, Gates explained, was to make it possible to use your computer to get any information you needed, without worrying about where it came from. In 1990, Gates demonstrated the vision by showing a query tool that would let you find any file on the network by matching the contents of the file. This was well beyond a PC's ordinary ability to find a file on its hard drive by looking for a particular filename...
Obviously, in 2007 we know Gates' vision was prescient - full-text information retrieval was not merely interesting; today it is a major focus for the whole computer industry. So one would think that given Gates' prediction, Microsoft would have staffed up a Search project in 1990 and beat everybody else to the punch. What happened?
A Decade-Long Head Start
In fact, in a way, Microsoft did try to execute on the vision. In one part of the company, Bill pushed a suite of information-rich CD ROM products including the breakthrough Encarta product that would be released in 1993.
And in another part of the company, Bill hired top NLP experts Karen Jensen, George Heidron, and Steve Richardson away from IBM with the vision of "sifting of huge libraries of data for key information without using technical computer commands." This was way back in 1991.
And yet today, with Steve Ballmer saying things like "we a lot of work to do in Search... we're an aspirant," it is clear that something went wrong. One wonders how Microsoft - fully aware of the future of the industry back in 1990 - so completely missed its substantial headstart on Google, Yahoo, and others.
Second Class Citizens
It is very hard to change a company's culture. Back in 1990, Microsoft was a company about delivering software, not about delivering information. It had grown successful on Windows, Word, and Excel - productivity tools.
With Gates' push for IAYF, Microsoft would forge efforts in new types of products - a whole Multimedia division was created, and it would produce ambitious products that packed huge amounts of data on CD ROMs.
But in the end, the company's past defined its culture and its future. Working at Microsoft in the 1990s, I learned very quickly that the "CD ROM" product people were second-class citizens compared to the software wizards at Windows and Office. They weren't quite as smart; they weren't quite as wealthy; and they seemed to spend a lot of time on silly things like recording audio clips. Multimedia products might have looked glitzy, but their products didn't make very much money and their work didn't seem "deep".
And in particular within the Multimedia division, the cool work was being done by people working on system software like codecs - new image and video and audio compression technology. The smart people didn't work on actually building and cataloging the big piles of data - the smart people worked on building the tricky pieces of code.
Microsoft's DNA Was Software, not Data
But "Information At Your Fingertips" came from Bill Gates. It was a company-wide mantra. What happened when Sinofsky (Gates' special technology assistant) transmitted the Gates vision of "Information At Your Fingertips" into the elite ranks of the Windows and Office divisions?
I remember Sinofsky presenting Powerpoint presentations to the Windows and Office people, teaching us about the Internet and showing the Windows flag in the middle of a network surrounded by fax machines, phones, TVs, databases, and all sorts of different data formats. He described a future connected world, where people would access all the world's information electronically.
So what had to be built? As interpreted by the Microsoft Windows and Office world, "Information At Your Fingertips" would become a justification for OLE, Office bundling, FAX features in email, and all sorts of other interoperability features. Somehow it seemed clear that you couldn't have information at your fingertips unless you were able to embed an Excel spreadsheet inside a Word document, or run Microsoft Word on your phone.
And so for the programmers at the company, the amazing thing about the IAYF vision wasn't actually the more information part. It was about more features - particularly interoperability features - in the software. Again, as understood by the Microsoft culture, IAYF wasn't about the data. It was about the software.
Grammar At Your Fingertips
What about those smart NLP folks in the research division? Certainly text experts from academia were among the early visionaries who understood what information retrieval was all about.
The problem is that a researcher does not a product make. If Microsoft had 100 engineers working on full-text search, the new NLP researchers would certainly have been able to help make it great. But at Microsoft, "technology transfer" meant contributing research knowledge to the products that Microsoft had. And so technology transfer meant adding NLP to Microsoft Word.
In the end, even though they were hired with the vision of making information easier to find, the NLP researchers Microsoft hired in 1991 ended up building the world's best grammar checker.
Microsoft Word has a very impressive grammar checker.
But, as Ballmer notes today, "in the area of Search specifically, Google would lead".Posted by David at November 9, 2007 10:29 AM
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