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MS apps division architect to be fired into space, again

Forgot his hat, or something...

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The man who built - not entirely deliberately - Microsoft's applications division is to be fired into space for a second time, at the cost of another slight ding in his huge money pile. Charles Simonyi, father of Excel and Word (sort of), will train with crack Russian billionaire minders in preparation for a mission in the spring of next year.

Simonyi will be on a "return flight" (do they offer alternatives?) to the International Space Station under the auspices of Space Adventures, whose president and CEO Eric Anderson observes: "Having a repeat orbital client demonstrates to the world that participating in a space mission is truly a magnificent and awe-inspiring experience. It is also an excellent example that the marketplace is even larger than previously anticipated."

Indeedy. Space Adventures looses off its sixth client, Richard Garriott, in less than two weeks, so unless they slip another one in before spring, Simonyi will be over 25 per cent of the outfit's customer base. But keep whistling, Eric.

Aside from being a serial space tourist, Simonyi's claim to fame and riches stems from his arrival at Microsoft from Xerox PARC in 1981, bearing Microsoft's first PhD. Simonyi, we are told in some places, "oversaw the development of what became [Microsoft's] most profitable products, Word and Excel." Or, in other places, that he "helped develop Word and Excel."

Up to a point, Lord Copper. As we've mentioned before, Simonyi's first efforts at Microsoft were the Multiplan spreadsheet, which was not so much the precursor of Excel as the reason Microsoft had to build it, and the cunning multi-platform strategy that resulted in Lotus 1-2-3 becoming the standard spreadsheet for the IBM PC. And as we've also said before (but it's such an ace crack, more people should hear it), original team member Richard Brodie described the word processor effort thus: "My mission: write the world's first wordprocessor with a spreadsheet user-interface. It took five years to repair the damage."

Which may have been not entirely unconnected to Wordstar's domination of the word processor market being broken by, er, WordPerfect. Nice shooting, Charles.

Another Simonyi achievement documented by Robert X Cringely in Accidental Empires is his construction (accidentally, appropriately enough) of Microsoft's Bill Gates cult. Says Cringely: "Microsoft created a system of hero worship that extended Gates' will into every aspect of the lives of employees he had not even met. It worked for Kim Il Sung in North Korea, and it works in the suburbs east of Seattle too."

This wasn't quite what Simonyi had in mind when he brought the concept of metaprogrammer from his PhD thesis to Microsoft. Simonyi envisaged a hierarchical structure that would allow one person to control a large software development team. Bill latched onto it as the "software factory." The structure as initially implemented didn't work, but it left Gates at the top of a system of architects and program managers that made Microsoft what it is today. So it possibly still doesn't work. Gates had only ever really wanted a control structure, says Cringely, so "he at least considered the software factory to be a success."

Robert X possibly lays on the Kim Il Sung stuff a little thickly, but you can see an argument that the company that famously described Open Source as communism has been, in some senses, a giant factory of workers and peasants presided over by the iron will of the godlike Chairman Bill. And all - in those very senses - Charles Simonyi's somewhat inadvertent achievement.* Wonder if it has to be a return flight? ®

* Also in the department of remarkable achievements, we should note that Charles was the significant other of Martha Stewart for 15 years. We have an odd anecdote about the deeply weird 'my life with tech' presentation Martha does for for an IT audience, but another time. We simply mention her now for the sheer surreal joy of getting Charles Simonyi, Bill Gates, Kim Il Sung, and Martha Stewart all into the one page.

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