Preparing for Soyuz space flight isn't the only thing on Simonyi's mind
Seattle Times staff columnist
It's getting harder to keep up with Charles Simonyi now that he's riding faster and faster vehicles.
But I managed to spend a little time with the PC-industry pioneer and former Microsoft chief architect last week, before he jetted off to Russia on Saturday to continue his training for a space flight in March. I'd been thinking about Simonyi, and not just because Martha Stewart renewed speculation about their romantic relationship in a recent magazine article. I wondered if the radical new programming tools Simonyi is developing at Intentional Software, a Bellevue company he started in 2002, could help Microsoft avoid another Vista debacle as it develops even more complex operating systems.
Vista overwhelmed Microsoft's development process two years ago, forcing it to scale back more ambitious goals. Then key Windows leaders were replaced with veterans from the business-applications group where Simonyi used to lead development.
Intentional's tools weren't ready then, but they may eventually change the way Microsoft and other companies develop software.
We discussed this possibility, his relationship with Stewart and mostly his appreciation of Russian spaceship engineering. Here's an edited transcript.
Q: You fled the Soviets as a teenager in Hungary, and now you're going to Russia and training with its astronauts. How does that feel?
A: I don't think they are the same people. It's a completely different system. If you look at Russia historically, it's a great country, great achievement. They have great music, great literature and language that they all love. The more I learn about their engineering, the more I am amazed by how much they have accomplished with very modest resources.
Q: Is it circa 1990 technology on the spacecraft you'll ride?
A: In many cases, it's even earlier. It's an interesting mixture of technologies, which is a great way to build systems — a combination of what worked and what's reliable and then cautious innovation.
Q: The processing power onboard is probably less than a laptop's.
A: That's generally true and sometimes there are good reasons for that.
I'll give you an example: The photo equipment — many of the cameras ... they are failing left and right because of radiation. It turns out that our electronics are getting so dense that even the loss of a few electrons can cause dropout bits. In a camera it would cause failures. So it's for good reason that they are using the older technologies and modest-capacity memories and chips.
In particular they are using the 386 — actually four 386 chips are running the Soyuz — but even that is not directly running it. It runs essentially a simulator for the keyboard that they used to have, so all the equipment is still made of relays and solid-state devices, not computers. There's a computer on the international space station, but there's not a central computer on the space capsule.
Q: So you feel more comfortable with that?
A: Absolutely. Some of the technology is surprisingly simple. I'll give you an example: There's a manual pump that I will have to operate — it's used to pump sweat from the air conditioner into a container because, well, where does the sweat go? It collects in a cold plate in the air-conditioning unit and then about 1 liter per person has to go someplace.
To pump it outside the spacecraft would be too complex — you'd have to make a hole, you'd have to heat it.
You remember the space shuttle had this problem with the heater on the water spout and the icicle was growing and causing problems? The Russians don't do that — they have a container inside with a limited capacity and they have a manual pump the spaceflight participant is supposed to operate every four hours, about 120 strokes. And because it's manual it has two strokes, so if one stroke fails the other stroke still does the job.
Hopefully the participant or the human element is not going to fail. But this is the kind of simplicity that makes a compact, reliable and inexpensive spacecraft possible.
Q: Has Intentional Software licensed any of its technology yet?
A: No, but we are working with early customers. One of them is CapGemini, a large French consulting company. Cap is enthusiastic about our approach, and we have decided we want to work with a few leading-edge early adapters because the support burden on us will be tolerable.
If we tried to go with more customers early, we wouldn't be able to support it. This way we get the technology and then when it's proven with early adapters then we can go wider. This will probably happen sometime next year.
Q: I understand you wanted to fly to space in 2008 or 2009, but the flight moved up. Did you want the later dates so you could get Intentional's product done first?
A: That's right. But my colleagues are understanding and they will do a great job while I'm training.
Q: Will the release wait until you're done?
A: No, we are working with CapGemini during this period so it doesn't affect the release. It affects the immediacy of my participation.
Q: I thought of your product when Microsoft reached the state of the art with Vista — the system didn't work, the process was not capable of handling what they wanted to accomplish. Do you think Intentional's technology could have helped them get through that challenge?
A: We would have had to start much earlier than we did. I don't want to second-guess what could have been and should have been. Looking forward, it's clear the industry needs the kind of technology that I'm offering. ... It's clear even to the skeptics — the skeptics say, yes, this is the right area. It remains to be seen who will deliver.
Q: You're taking it from theory to a product?
A: Well, even the theory is news to most people because, as you know, it's changing the paradigm from a text-based programming language into a much richer, domain-specific approach to programming, where the notations are practically unlimited and much more in line with all the other kinds of programs that you run on computers today.
Q: You have an arrangement with Microsoft. Doesn't it get first crack at this technology?
A: No. The arrangement with Microsoft is a patent cross-licensing agreement so that we can use the Microsoft patents in this area and Microsoft can use our patents in this area.
For the first four years there was a kind of courtesy — we had to keep them abreast of what's going on — but it was more of a courtesy than any sort of requirement. However, we want Microsoft to be our friends so we are happy to, and in fact we are friends with Microsoft, and I keep them up to date in what's going on, of course.
Q: Were you close to Jon DeVaan at Microsoft?
A: Of course. I hired Jon DeVaan.
Q: Now he's been elevated to fix those processes we talked about (as senior vice president of Windows Core division). What's your outlook there?
A: Look, Microsoft has to be very, very pragmatic, and their processes are critical to that business and they involve a lot of people. I don't think they would be my first customer. It is not the place to do a disruptive technology.
There are many other areas — for example, the projects CapGemini is doing — hundreds, where it's quite possible, there is no legacy or there's very little legacy, and where this should be applied first. When it's all proven, then maybe it should be used for these larger projects.
Jon, of course, is aware of what we are doing, he knows it's the future, but it's not the focus of his work. The focus of his work is to do something much more gradual.
Q: Did they ask you to come back and help out — you were the chief architect, were you not?
A: I was one of the chief architects, yes, but I was on a different area, not on the systems area. I don't think it's worth speculating. The industry needs many, many contributions — it needs contributions from Microsoft to include their processes. The industry also needs very forward-looking technologies that maybe will be used the day after tomorrow. I'm working on that one, Microsoft has to work on this other.
Q: Martha Stewart was in a magazine recently saying you are her special friend.
A: We are very, very good friends.
Q: That's the same as it has been?
A: Yes, we have been friends for quite a while, and we are still very good friends.
Q: Is that going to the next level yet?
A: We are very good friends.
Q: Are you invested in any of these space ventures?
A: No, I'm invested as a customer. To actually be an entrepreneur requires a different set of interests and a different set of skills than I have. I'm doing my entrepreneurship in the limited area of software that I understand and where I have this important, I feel, and others feel, too, that we have a very important contribution to make.
Q: Will you change the focus of your charitable foundation more to science education or space travel?
A: I don't see that this would change it in any way. To the extent that I can use my platform, such as it is, to advance science education and interest in science, I will certainly do so.
Q: Has Bill Gates asked you about participating in his foundation in the way Warren Buffett has?
A: No, and frankly I don't think Bill asked Warren, either. I think it went the other way. I think what they are doing is wonderful and there's a need for a whole variety of foundations and interests. We are doing our niche very well.
Q: What's the hardest part of the physical training for space travel?
A: The rotating chair. The centrifuge is not unpleasant. I can take that, any length. It's something you can train to and get used to; it's not bad at all. The rotating chair is quite unpleasant.
Q: It's to resist G forces?
A: No, there's no G forces, but it confuses your ear. The rotation starts the fluid going and as you move your head — you do it with your eyes closed — you feel that you're completely out of control. You learn to ignore it, that's what happens.
Q: How do you feel when you go out in your yard at night and you look up at the stars, now that you've decided to travel to space? Is it a spiritual thing for you?
A: I can't say it is. You know, when I'm in the middle of the night flying [a jet] at 41,000 feet, you are out there. This is just a little bit higher — 15, 20 times higher. Also, the view sideways, sometimes you'll see 200 miles [from a plane], so it's not that unusual for us to see something 200 miles away in the air. It's just that now you're looking vertically.
Q: You're an engineer through and through.
A: Yeah, I'm afraid so.
But, look, I think it will be neat when you see the space station, just floating there like in "2001."
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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