October 16, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Newsmaker: Microsoft's Mundie: A bottom-up approach to techSee all Newsmakers
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As Bill Gates manages his slow-motion farewell, Microsoft is preparing for the day when it will lose its biggest long-range thinker. That's why Mundie, earlier this year, was elevated to one of the most powerful posts within the company. Perhaps more than any of his peers, it is his job to make sure Microsoft remains focused on the big picture.
The task list includes sundry items like open-source software, privacy and security, as well as the changing concept of software in an increasingly Web-based service economy. And that's just for starters. CNET News.com recently caught up with the peripatetic Mundie, one of the rare times he hasn't been airborne of late, to get an update.
Q: Here in the Bay Area, there's a lot of attention directed to Web 2.0, regardless of whether you believe that's just a slick marketing slogan or something else. Anyway, there's always a lot of chatter about what's cool and what's not. Do you think Microsoft is still a cool company?
Mundie: Well, yes and no. I think that our established businesses are something that are just extremely well-known and respected. To some extent, I think that's antithetical to cool. On the other hand, if you look at what we've done with things like Xbox and potentially what will come now with the Zune effort, I think it clearly demonstrates that for those audiences, the company can deliver cool things.
Preparing for the interview, I was re-reading the text of a speech you gave back in 2000/2001 at New York University.
Mundie: Yeah, the seminal speech on open-source issues.
Yes, indeed. You said something interesting, if I may quote: "The technology industry has to prove its commitment to privacy and security in order to encourage user acceptance of the technologies." Considering how many security glitches crop up and that the word "pretexting" has entered the common lexicon, how would you grade the industry's commitment to what you were talking about?
Mundie: I would grade the industry as not doing all that well. On the other hand, I would grade Microsoft as having made quite dramatic improvements. It (was) only shortly after I gave that speech at NYU that I also participated in launching what is called the Trustworthy Computing Initiative at Microsoft...I think it was that same November, or something, I gave a speech, and really, it was an entreaty to the industry to get more focused on these trust parameters.
The reality is there has been very little uptake within the other companies and much less focus on it than we have here. It is a huge and challenging problem, and one where I'm proud to say I think the company has made great strides.
(Think about) the degree at which the hardening of our products is actually the reason that many (products from other companies) are beginning to be attacked. People move to where the weaknesses are, and as we've tightened things down, that phenomena is clearly observable now in other people's products.
You mentioned Trustworthy Computing. The company has invested huge resources, but hardly a week goes by that you don't hear about another flaw that you've got to correct.
Mundie: It's true. But if you look at the statistics, the arrival rate of these problems for us is actually declining fairly significantly. One of the acid tests for the company would be in the next couple of years. The first product that will have been through the complete new sort of design process that we've created under the Trustworthy Computing Initiative will be Windows Vista.
The same is true largely for Office 2007. While we still don't expect these things to be perfect, the degree to which there's defense in depth, I think it will be in some sense obvious to people when they sit and use Vista.
I want to go back to that speech. There's another, perhaps more commonly quoted, line where you talked about the viral aspect of the GPL (General Public License) posing the threat to the intellectual property of the organization making use of it. Have your views changed since then?
Mundie: Those speeches and a lot of the dialogue that ensued after it have actually forced a level of clarity around the use of the GPL. Certainly, enterprises who are now concerned about indemnity--this was something that they didn't think about before. I think that it forced the Free Software Foundation itself to come up with more clarity around the GPL, and to be clear about how aggressive the interpretation of that would be, relative to people building these composite products that had some GPL code within them. I think people are a lot more painstaking about this now than they were in the past.
I basically maintain the position that I had--even five years ago--that if you are not discriminating in your use of those type of licenses, you stand a substantial risk of either having a liability you didn't understand or potentially the loss of your own intellectual property.
You took over June 15 and became the company's external voice on technology. Any signposts yet that would define the Mundie Era? Is it too soon, or have you been able to put your stamp on operations?
Mundie: When we faced the prospect of Bill deciding to pull the trigger and have a migration out of the company and into the Gates Foundation on a full-time basis, we knew that it would be very difficult--if not essentially impossible--to just replace Bill.
So we decided to break his job into two parts and added the nearer-term technical coordination to Ray Ozzie's plate. We took the long-term strategy and policy and research and put them on my plate. The time horizon that I focus on is three to 10 years in the future. So, all of the business policy and technical issues, the anticipation of those things and the preparation for those things on that time horizon, are mine.
More long-term strategic items?
Mundie: Correct. Generally, the research folks are looking at stuff normally in a five-year or longer time horizon with no immediate requirement for productization.
Since the changes were announced, you've had a chance to think about what might be on that five-to-10-year horizon. Help me understand what is at the top of your agenda.
Mundie: The things at the top of my agenda now are really not that much different than some of the ones that have been at the top of my agenda for the last couple of years. I was the one who pushed the company into an aggressive expansion program in the emerging economy countries, for example. I've been the liaison to China for the last seven years, and India for the last four years, and Russia for the last three years. So in many of these countries where we're changing both our product line, organizational structure and business model, you could say that I've been the sponsor for a lot of that within the company.
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