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Microsoft researcher wins Turing Award

Chuck Thacker, who helped pioneer key aspects of the PC, gets an honor seen as the Nobel Prize of computing. In an interview, he talks about the award, his work, and why he's not retiring anytime soon.

Computing industry pioneer Chuck Thacker was honored Tuesday with the industry's highest prize--the A. M. Turing Award.

Thacker, who these days works in Microsoft's Silicon Valley research lab, helped create personal computing at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center and is one of the co-creators of both the Alto personal computer and Ethernet networking.

Thacker Microsoft

In an interview Tuesday, Thacker said he was surprised that he would even be considered for the Turing Award, which typically goes to folks on the software or theory side of things.

"I was flabbergasted," Thacker said. "The last one who was given the award whose primary technology focus was in the technology machinery was in 1967."

At Microsoft, Thacker helped set up the company's lab in Cambridge and has worked on projects ranging from the early prototypes of the tablet PC to his most recent project, a programmable $750 computer that university students can use to design their own systems. Typically students can write papers on a new computing architecture or write a new operating system that works on existing architecture. Thacker's latest project, known as the Beehive, lets students design a system using a computer that can essentially be reprogrammed.

"if you teach architecture these days," he said, "you learn about these very complex things but you never get to build these things."

Thacker said a corollary project in networking done by a Stanford professor has become a standard in the teaching of that subject. He hopes that Beehive might have similar success. In January, Microsoft helped teach a class at MIT using Thacker's project.

As for the tablet PC, Thacker said that there are some people who love tablets, such as university professors who want to write on their presentation slides or doctors who hate to type. But he acknowledged that handwriting recognition hasn't advanced enough to make it useful for all, particularly given the fact that good penmanship is not widely focused on in school these days.

"I think that the tablet has been a qualified success since we did the early prototypes in the late 1990s," he said.

I asked Thacker what it would feel like to have done so much work on the tablet at Microsoft only to see a company like Apple have the first commercial hit. Thacker said that he hasn't yet seen the Apple iPad, but added, "A lot of the things I've done in my career were commercialized by others."

Indeed, Thacker said his biggest impact on the company is from the work he did at Xerox PARC.

"They were in years long before Microsoft existed," he said.

As for what's next, Thacker said he isn't sure.

"I tend to operating in an opportunistic mode and attack problems as they appear," he said. "Right now, no such problem has appeared."

But retirement isn't one of the things under consideration.

"It's hard to imagine retiring," he said. "I think my wife would be very unhappy if I did."

Thacker was nominated by Microsoft Research colleague Butler Lampson, himself a Turing Award winner. The award, given by the Association for Computing Machinery, is often described at the Nobel Prize for computing. Thacker is the fourth person from the company to have won the award, joining Lampson, 1980 honoree Tony Hoare and 1998 winner Jim Gray, who went missing on a sailing trip in 2007 and is now presumed to have died.

Thacker said he was honored by the award, but even more honored to have created a body of work that would make someone think of giving him such a prize.

"I'm glad that I've been able to have a significantly large impact on the technology that the world uses that the ACM would choose to give me the award," he said.

For its part, Microsoft posted a lengthy article on its Web site with a video tribute to Thacker.