Computers are among the most incredible innovations of the 20th century--they've helped transport people to the moon and back safely, they manage critical aircraft systems for thousands of flights every day, they support business operations at companies of all sizes, and they move trillions of dollars around the world to keep the global economy moving.
But we're still in the early years of the computer revolution, and there are many technological, social and regulatory hurdles we must overcome before computers truly become a ubiquitous--and essential--technology.
In many ways, the development of computing technology has been very similar to the path taken by electricity in the late 19th century. Electricity was first adopted by businesses to increase manufacturing productivity, but in the home it was a luxury. There was a great deal of uncertainty about the predictability of electricity--which was commonly associated with lightning, an untamable natural force--and there were no guarantees that sub-standard appliances wouldn't fail inexplicably or even injure their owners.
By the 1930s, however, a combination of technology improvements, industry initiatives and public shifts in perception led to increased electricity use throughout society--it was not yet wholly safe or reliable, but it had become safe and reliable enough. Today, we practically take electricity for granted.
With computing technology, we're still a long way from achieving that kind of dependability. Many people today are still reluctant to trust computers with their personal information, such as financial and medical records, and few people would knowingly entrust their lives to them--implicitly or explicitly. If we are to fulfill the immense promise of technology and make computing truly ubiquitous, we will have to make the computing ecosystem as reliable and trustworthy as electricity is today--at every level, from individual chips all the way up to advanced networks, software and services.
Complete trustworthiness has yet to be achieved in any pervasive technology--the power grid still surges and fails, water and gas pipes rupture, and telephone lines sometimes drop calls. Yet they are for the most part there when we need them, and they do what we need them to do. They are, in most respects, trustworthy.
While many in the computer industry today are focused on important privacy and security issues, achieving trustworthy computing is a much broader challenge. Computing systems must be available when people and businesses need them; their features and functionality must be suitable for their needs; they should preserve the integrity of the data they store and manipulate; they should operate with the utmost respect for people's privacy needs; and computing hardware, software and services should be provided by reliable and reputable companies.
In the coming decade, the entire technology industry needs to focus on achieving this goal of trustworthy computing. Making this happen is a long-term challenge--and a commitment that Microsoft is making, both in its current practices and its direction for the future.
It will require an increased commitment to basic research, focused on problems that could take years to solve--from simple computer-science principles that make software easier to create and vastly more reliable, to business practices that ensure accountability and high-quality service.
And, since the computer systems of tomorrow will be vastly more complex, interconnected and interdependent, we will need a fundamentally new approach to designing stable and reliable computers that can increasingly manage themselves. We'll need engineering solutions that make installing and maintaining computer hardware and software as simple as changing a light bulb.
Computing technology will only become truly ubiquitous when we can use it without thinking too much about whether it will work. Yet the way we build computers, and the way that we now build services around those computers, hasn't really changed that much in the last 30 or 40 years. But it will need to. At a time when computers are starting to find their way into just about every aspect of our lives, we must build trust into these systems from the ground up.