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Microsoft Days: Transforming the Desktop

December 9, 2002 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Charles Simonyi, former chief architect at Microsoft Corp. and now CEO of Intentional Software Corp., continues his interview with Computerworld's Robert L. Mitchell. Here he discusses his work at Microsoft, which included leading the development teams for the Word and Excel programs.

What was your most important contribution at Microsoft? When you look at Word, the fact that it has been around for 20 years and the functionality when you look at it today is so wonderful ... the design 20 years ago must have captured something right, so that it can carry the load of these innovations. Basically, it's the same design, it's the same code that is carrying the fantastic innovations that people have added to Word. I think that would be my most important contribution.

What would you say was the biggest failure? I didn't have a single, spectacular failure at Microsoft. I had failures of communication with people. I had a failure to sometimes respect the market, and I'm appreciating even now the need to learn. I know that I have to be able to listen in order to learn.

When you say failure to respect the market, were you talking about your experience with the Multiplan spreadsheet program? Multiplan was a misjudgment of the market. Microsoft made two bets at the time. One was in the operating systems arena with MS-DOS, and the other was in the application arena with the Multitools.
Multiplan was done on a byte-coded interpreting system, much like Java. It was probably the most ported system ever deployed. We thought that the market would be fractured for a long time and that we would be on all of those machines -- which we were.
Interestingly enough, MS-DOS changed that and created a unified market. And, of course, Lotus 1-2-3 made their bet on creating a single, optimized, direct implementation for MS-DOS, and they cleaned up. We learned a lot from that failure. And then of course, when the next shift came to GUIs [graphical user interfaces], we cleaned their clock with Excel.

In the past, you criticized your former employer, Xerox PARC, for "biggerism" -- a "bigger is better" mentality. But products such as Microsoft Office have also been criticized for being too bloated with features. Do you see an irony in that? I thought that Xerox really made a lot of mistakes. At a time when the Alto cost $50,000, they were scaling it up in every way possible instead of scaling it down. The result was, of course, failures. I think that everyone agrees that

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