Microsoft's strategy exec pushes the concept as the software giant's new technology focus.
Craig Mundie, Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, is sure he has a good handle on where technology is going. When is another story.
Mundie, who took over as Microsoft's lead visionary from co-founder Bill Gates in 2006, is preparing the company for a technology shift that he expects will be as big as the rise of the personal computer or the Internet: parallel computing.
"It's a lot easier for us to have a fairly accurate sense of what will happen and even make good technical progress toward achieving it," Mundie said last week. "Almost everything we tried to do took longer than we expected."
The overseer of Microsoft's $7 billion research and development budget, Mundie knows firsthand how even promising technologies can take time to develop. After all, he has led Microsoft's efforts in Web-based television and nontraditional forms of computing.
Parallel computing has been hyped for years as the next big thing in technology, allowing computers to run faster by dividing up tasks over multiple microprocessors instead of using a single processor to perform one task at a time.
The technology's full potential is almost unfathomable today, but it could lead to major advances in robotics or software applications that can translate documents in real time in multiple languages.
The computer industry has taken its first steps toward parallel computing in recent years by using "multi-core" chips, but Mundie said this is the "tip of the iceberg."
To maximize computing horsepower, software makers will need to change how software programmers work. Only a handful of programmers in the world know how to write software code to divide computing tasks into chunks that can be processed at the same time instead of a traditional, linear, one-job-at-a-time approach.
A new programming language would be required, and could affect how almost every piece of software is written.
"This problem will be hard," admitted Mundie, who worked on parallel computing as the head of supercomputer company Alliant Computer Systems before joining Microsoft. "This challenge looms large over the next 5 to 10 years."
The shift to parallel computing was born out of necessity after processor speeds ran into heat and power limitations, forcing the semiconductor industry to assemble multiple cores, or electronic brains, on a single chip.
Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have already assembled chips with as many as four processors on a single chip. Tilera, a Silicon Valley chip start-up, foresees a 1,000-core chip by 2014.
Mundie, who assumed half of Gates' job almost two years ago, sets the long-term technological direction for the company as the co-founder moves to a part-time role in July to focus on philanthropy. Ray Ozzie, chief software architect, sets the shorter-term agenda.
Mundie has at his disposal Microsoft's research department with over 800 PhD researchers working on the new technology.
The research focuses on everything from Web search to simultaneous translation to touch-screen technology, but parallel computing is certainly among its top priorities because it will likely affect every part of Microsoft.
Computers about 100 times more powerful than now will emerge within 20 years, Mundie estimated, packing the capabilities of a corporate data center into a single die sitting inside a mobile phone or laptop.
A "killer application" will bring this computing power to the forefront, he said, just like what word processing and spreadsheets did for the PC and how e-mail and the Web browser popularized the Internet.
Pushing a company as big as Microsoft -- with about 80,000 employees -- to look past historical strengths and traditional ways of doing things to focus on new technology is not easy.
"Bill (Gates) and I have both talked at times over the years that you can't do these jobs unless you are an optimist, almost an extreme optimist because in a way you are fighting so many forces that are resistant to change," said Mundie.