mercredi 1 avril 2009

Robots, Incorporated Continued 3

“The idea of robots, of giving machines the powers of humans, is very powerful in our culture,” Tansley says, “going all the way back to the Greeks. We kept hearing that robotics research was popular but challenging. Students wanted to program robots, but they were spending all their time on fundamental engineering. There was a lot of reinvention of the wheel.”

Microsoft, Tansley says, is the software equivalent of a plumbing company. “The notion of doing the fundamental plumbing for robotics seemed like a good idea.” So in December 2003, he set about using a uniquely Microsoft invention to get the company focused on robotics. With a colleague, he started to write a paper on the topic for Think Week, Gates's semiannual retreat during which he reads a hundred or more papers from employees at every level of the company. “While writing it,” Tansley recalls, “we came across Tandy Trower.” Trower decided to write his own Think Week paper about robotics.

That winter, Gates would hear about robotics directly. A few months after reading Trower's and Tansley's Think Week papers, he visited six schools on a university tour, another of his semiregular brainstorming exercises. By his account, at every stop students and faculty were excited to show him at least one robotics project.

The message to Gates was clear: go anywhere in the world, from Germany to Korea, and there's an excitement, an anticipation that something is happening with robots. They're a powerful attractor for students and everyone else. And concurrent, distributed programming on multicore multiprocessors was the new, disruptive technology that was going to take robots out of their largely industrial settings and put them everywhere.

Once Gates decided to involve Microsoft in robotics, the next step was to figure out how. Should Microsoft write an operating system specifically for robots? What other resources existed within the company that could help? Even in late 2003, Microsoft had a set of programming tools for Web services, called .Net; a small, efficient version of Windows, called Windows CE, which today can be found embedded in everything from ATMs and cellphones to gas pumps; language products designed for Web-style programming, such as C#; and Mundie's codebase, including CCR and DSS. Gates sent Trower on an open-ended mission to figure out just what Microsoft should do, and who within the company should do it. After a five-month study covering everything from Lego's Mindstorms to the latest industrial robots, Trower reported back to Gates: “I told him I thought there was a business here for Microsoft and that I might want to run it myself.”

Trower's modest title—general manager, Microsoft Robotics Group—accurately reflects the genial 26-year veteran's self-effacing ways but hides both his influence at Microsoft and a résumé tailor-made for running such a venture. He arrived in 1981 to manage the company's BASIC language products, already its biggest business and one that would develop into a division that sold compilers for C, Fortran, and Pascal, as well as BASIC. Next, he managed the first two releases of Windows and, even before that, developed programs for it, including Microsoft's famous flight simulator. He founded the company's first usability lab. Eventually, Trower became a minister-without-portfolio reporting directly to Gates.

Besides giving the robotics group its manager, Gates can be credited with finding an ideal niche within Microsoft for it. He told Trower to form a regular business unit with a staff, a budget, and its own quarters—the Broom Closet—in a building that also housed other research groups. Version 1.0 of Robotics Studio would have a release date, just like any commercial product, and was to be updated and maintained like any other release. But Gates also located the group organizationally within Microsoft's research division, freeing Trower from the need to produce revenue. There would be no product managers telling him who his customers were or what features they needed. In place of market research, Trower was to rely on his five-month study, his years at Microsoft, and his knowledge of what programmers need and users want.

By maneuvering the new group into a gray space between Microsoft's business and research wings, Gates created a start-up right in the middle of the vast Redmond campus, a skunkworks that had the boss's blessing. Soon after, Mundie gave Trower the fruits of the Advanced Technology Incubation Group's research, CCR and DSS, as well as the two programmers who were their principal architects, George Chrysanthakopoulos and Henrik Frystyk Nielsen. By then, Trower had chosen several of the group's eight other software engineers.

The resulting team is as eclectic as the special-forces crew in the World War II movie The Dirty Dozen. Just as Lee Marvin's Major Reisman had a mix of sharpshooters, demolition experts, and so on, Trower needed specialists for everything from operating-system-level programming to user interfaces. [See photo, “Microsoft's Dirty Dozen (Minus One).” Since the photo was taken, a Korean software engineer, Young Joon Kim, has joined the group, making it an even dozen after all.] No three members were born in the same country or were from the same part of the company.