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Commentary: Farewell to a Visionary of the Computer Age


Michael L. Dertouzos has returned to his beloved Greece for the last time. The longtime director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) was buried on Sept. 4 in First Athens Cemetery, not far from his boyhood home and near the finish line for the Olympic Marathon. He died on Aug. 27, at 64, of heart failure.

Dertouzos took great pride in being Greek and relished the role of high-tech oracle for most of his four decades at MIT, where he earned an electrical engineering PhD in 1964. After being named LCS head in 1974, he prophesied that up to 33% of American homes would have a personal computer by the mid-1990s--never mind that PCs back then were crude build-it-yourself kits. And in 1980, when the forerunner of today's Internet was the exclusive domain of researchers at a few dozen universities, he foresaw it evolving into an "information marketplace" for conducting business globally.

But an uncritical cheerleader for high tech he was not. Indeed, he grew increasingly dismayed with PC technology during the 1990s, especially Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows operating system, which he thought was getting more and more turgid. Sometimes, he'd lose his cool and make vitriolic statements about Windows, but then quickly add, "Please don't quote me." He didn't want to alienate Microsoft to the point where it wouldn't listen to his ideas for more intuitive, people-oriented systems.

PEEVES. Many of his pet peeves were laid out in 1999 in The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers & What They Can Do for Us, the last of his eight books. In it, he envisions PCs that respond to spoken commands in everyday language--devices that wouldn't balk if you said something like: "Find me the cars with the most back-seat legroom combined with the best mileage and the lowest cost, and show me the top five." He doubted that Microsoft would forsake Windows' profits to develop a radically new system. But to avoid losing the company's support on other issues, he'd blunt his Microsoft barbs with irony, wondering, for example, why you shut down a PC by clicking on "Start."

Microsoft may have starred in his hall of shame, but Dertouzos regularly took the whole computer industry to task. Even the operating system in his favorite machine, the Macintosh from Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL), got pretty low marks. He lambasted software companies for piling on marginal features in incessant upgrades that can downgrade user efficiency. When he and I last spoke, in October, 2000, he continued to decry the senseless complexity of PCs. Even computer gurus like himself, he groused, were often reduced to "random trial-and-error tinkering to get programs to work together properly, which I find maddening."

If all this carping makes Dertouzos seem like a pessimist, he wasn't. He was an upbeat character who grinned a lot, and his smile was infectious. His passionate pleas for reform were aimed mainly at things he knew could be fixed. Technologies to simplify computing were in hand, or coming soon, he'd insist. The big worry was that companies might lack the mind-set to exploit them.

Dertouzos didn't just talk about what should be done. In the 1980s, he played a key role in Project Athena, the first campuswide computer network in academia. For it, LCS created a windowing capability for the Unix operating system, which later helped physicist Tim Berners-Lee invent the World Wide Web. Off campus, Dertouzos co-founded some of the 50-odd companies that sprouted from research at his lab, including Lotus, PictureTel, RSA Security, and Tibco Software. The latest one, Curl Corp., has software for building multimedia Web sites with no-wait response times.

The capstone of his career, though, is the Oxygen Project, the most ambitious undertaking in LCS history. Started in 1999 with funding from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and backed by the likes of Hewlett-Packard (HWP), Nokia (NOK), and Philips (PHGZF), as well as MIT's own Artificial Intelligence Lab, this $50 million effort aspires to make computers as easy to use as air is to breathe--and equally pervasive. Dertouzos sketched this whole landscape in The Unfinished Revolution, and he had hoped to begin plucking the project's initial fruits by around 2003.

If the Oxygen Project delivers on its promise, it will help the world evolve from "computer autocracy to computer democracy," as Dertouzos wrote in his last book. That would be a fitting legacy for a transplanted Greek.

Dertouzos was a frequent sounding board for Senior Writer Port, starting in 1982. By Otis Port


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