Home' Technology Review : January February 2007 Contents 38 FEATURE STORY
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ni cant cost overr uns, or both. The U.S. government has
found it nearly impossible to introduce or upgrade large-
scale software systems: decade-long e orts at the Federal
Aviation Administration and the FBI have collapsed in chaos.
Businesses have fared no better. To give a single example,
McDonald s executives dreamed of a Web-based manage-
ment system they called Innovate that would track the real-
time ow of burgers, fries, and chicken nuggets in every
one of their restaurants around the world. By the time they
gave up and canceled the project, they had to write o $170
million of its estimated $1 billion total cost.
Such failures add up. Every year, according to a 2002 study
by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, soft-
ware failures cost $59.5 billion. But the price of bad soft-
ware can also be measured in human misery---and even in
lives lost. During the 1991 Gulf War, a Patriot missile battery
didn t re at an incoming Scud because of faulty software;
the direct hit on a barracks killed 28 U.S. soldiers.
The past half-century of computing has seen wonderful
progress. Programmers have abandoned punch cards and
teletypes. They have given us a computer
on every desktop, tools for work, toys for
play, and a network that links homes and
businesses to for m a teeming global pool
of information and entertainment. This
progress has been fueled by the exponen-
tial cur ve of Moore s Law, Intel founder
Gordon Moore s prediction that micro-
chips power would double (or their cost
would halve) every one to two years. But
even as Moore s Law has made each year s
new computers faster and cheaper, the exi-
bility and utility of our computer systems have been limited
by the slower, uneven evolution of software. One for mula-
tion of this problem is known as Wirth s Law, after program-
ming expert Niklaus Wirth: "Software gets slower faster than
hardware gets faster."
Simonyi shares much of the common dissatisfaction with
software. "Software as we know it is the bottleneck on the
digital horn of plenty," he says. "It takes up tremendous
resources in talent and time. It s disappointing and hard to
change. It blocks innovation in many organizations."
Simonyi s ambition is to unstop that software bottle-
neck---characteristically, by going meta. He s developed
an approach he calls intentional programming (or, more
recently, intentional software), which he hopes will over-
turn programming. If Simonyi has his way, programmers
will stop trying to manage their clients needs. Instead, for
every problem they re asked to tackle---whether inventory
tracking or missile guidance---they will create generic tools
that the computer users themselves can modify to guide the
software s future evolution.
On a gray afternoon last October, I sat down with
Simonyi in Bellevue, WA, in front of two adjacent screens
in his o ce at Intentional Software, the company that he
founded after he left Microsoft in 2002 to develop and com-
mercialize his big idea. Simonyi was racing me through a
presentation he was preparing for an upcoming conference;
he used Microsoft O ce PowerPoint slides to outline his
vision for the proposed great leap for ward in programming.
He was in the middle of moving one slide around when the
application just stopped responding.
In the corner of the left-hand screen, a goggle-eyed paper
clip popped up: the widely reviled "O ce Assistant" that
Microsoft introduced in 1997. Simonyi tried to ignore the
cartoon aide s antic dgeting, but he was stymied. "Noth-
ing is working," he sighed. "That s because Clippy is giv-
ing me some help."
I was puzzled. "You mean you haven t turned Clippy
o ?" Long ago, I d hunted through O ce s menus and
checked whichever box was required to throttle the annoy-
ing anthropomorph once and for all.
"I don t know how," Simonyi admitted, with a little laugh
that seemed to say, Yes, I know, isn t it ironic?
It was. Simonyi spent years leading the applications teams
at Microsoft, the developers of Word and Excel, whose prod-
ucts are used every day by tens of millions of people. He is
widely regarded as the father of Microsoft Word. (I am, of
course, using Word to write these sentences.) Could Charles
Simonyi have met his match in Clippy?
Simonyi stared at his adversary, as if locked in telepathic
combat. Then he turned to me, blue eyes shining. "I need a
helper: a Super-Clippy to show me where to turn him o !"
Simonyi was hankering for a meta-Clippy.
In 2004, Simonyi proposed his own law: "Anything that
can be done could be done meta. " In his younger days---
when he d grandiosely named a project "Simonyi s In -
nitely Glorious Network"---he would probably have been
more arrogant: "Anything you can do, I can do meta!" But
like many prodigies who have done well and aged well,
Simonyi has learned to cut his cockiness with touches of
humility and grace. A decade ago, he described himself as "a
I was puzzled. "You mean you haven't
turned Clippy off?" Long ago, I'd hunted
through Office's menus and checked
whichever box was required to throttle the
annoying anthropomorph once and for all.
"I don't know how," Simonyi admitted.
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