Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A "Tablet PC" Pioneer Wins The Pregtigious Turing Award

A Veteran hardware developer at the Xerox Corp.'s PARC and Microsoft, Charles P. Thacker, has won the prestigious Turing Award with a $250,000 prize, given by the Association for Computing Machinery.

If a pioneer can be described as a person with arrows in the back, Charles P. Thacker may qualify, because his contributions to computing, although brilliant, often flopped initially. Many of his accomplishments, however, were later successful.

The technical award is granted by the Association For Computing Machinery. Named after British mathematician and cryptologist Alan Turing, the prize is given annually "to an individual selected for contributions of a technical nature made to the computing community."

At different times in his career, Thacker, now 67, seemed to be everywhere. He was the lead hardware developer at the Xerox Corp.'s PARC Palo Alto Research Center where so much of the PC's early innovations were developed including:

- the Alto computer's bit-mapped WYSIWYG test display,
- the mouse pointing device,
- he was the co-founder of Ethernet, still computing's workhorse LAN.

created and collaborated on what would become the fundamental building blocks of the PC business.

The Alto computer, developed in 1974, incorporated bitmap (TV-like) displays which enable modern graphical user interfaces (GUIs), including What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editors. These components have dominated computing during the last two decades.

was the co-inventor of the Ethernet local area network, introduced in 1973, the “interconnection fabric” that allows multiple digital devices such as workstations, printers, scanners, file servers, and modems to communicate with each other. Today’s Ethernets, which are thousands of times faster than the original version, have become the dominant local area networking technology.

At Digital Equipment Corporation’s System Research Center, Thacker designed the Firefly multiprocessor workstation, an innovation that has new relevance in the current multi-core world. These systems are widely used across many domains for their ability to improve productivity and create performance advantages, with applications for embedded architecture, network systems, digital signal processing, graphics, and special effects.

Thacker went on to Microsoft Research in 1997 to help establish its Microsoft Research Cambridge laboratory, where he also oversaw the design of the first prototypes on which most of today’s tablet PCs are based. Described as the most significant recent advance in the PC hardware platform, they enable faster, more powerful operations and they offer fundamentally new capabilities for direct interaction with users that are fast becoming part of the mainstream of computing. After joining the Tablet PC team to help shepherd the product to market, he returned to Microsoft Research in 2005, and is currently engaged in computer architecture research at Microsoft’s Silicon Valley campus.

But Thacker always seemed to be ahead of his time, producing early-stage innovations, only to watch his contributions be embodied in later successful products.

The tablet PC that he developed for Microsoft is a case in point. It debuted in 2001 and logged sluggish sales, but many of its concepts have been taking off lately. Apple's iPad tablet, due to ship in a few days, may be the latest example.

Thacker has been collecting awards in recent years. He won the IEEE's John von Neumann award for "a central role in the creation of the personal computer and the development of networked computer systems." He is a technical fellow at Microsoft.

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