O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference

Microsoft's Research Director Taps Top Tech Trends

by Richard Koman

Rick Rashid Gives an Insider's Glimpse at the Future

When Richard Koman went looking for the best price for a RAM upgrade for his wife's blue-and-white Mac G3 tower, he found a MacWorld article from 1999 stating that Viking had just released a 256 MB module for $1,499. The price at MacMall this week is $109; a price decrease of 13x in three years.

Hard drives are running about 33 cents per GB; it seems like it wasn't that long ago that the rule of thumb was a dollar a megabyte. Now these seemingly mundane facts may not indicate anything more to you than the unattractiveness of the disk drive industry as an investment opportunity, but to Rick Rashid they're "very exciting."

For Rashid, director of Microsoft Research, the affordable price of massive disks on desktop PCs is a critical factor in the future of technology. Read the following interview to find out why.

Rashid left Carnegie-Mellon University in 1992 to start Microsoft Research, a division of the software giant tasked with "moving forward the state of the art" and moving technology into Microsoft products. One of the major successes there is the Windows Media Group, which started out as a research project and is now a leading part of the company.

Koman asked Rashid, who will be a keynote speaker at O'Reilly's Emerging Technology conference in May, to point to the top trends in technology, as seen from the perspective of someone who's working on it years before it turns into product.

Trend #1: Storage Space

Richard Koman: Where are technology and computer science going? Can you point to three or four upcoming trends you see?

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Rick Rashid: If you look at the kinds of things that are happening right now in the hardware space and the software space, there are several areas I think are pretty important.

One thing, of course, is that the amount of storage that's available has just been mushrooming. It's growing much faster than Moore's Law. We're seeing an increase in storage size of roughly a factor of two every six months. And we're only probably two or three years at most away from individuals having a terabyte of storage on their PCs or in their laptops.

So this creates a lot of other opportunities. You can start thinking about your computer now as a place where you can store almost everything that happens to you. For example, you could literally put every conversation you've ever had, from the time you're born to the time you die, in a terabyte of disk.

So, it becomes kind of a digital memory for you -- you may not want to keep all that information and that's fine. But now you don't have to think about storage as a limiter for a lot of data that you would like to store <ETH> [such as] managing a lot of the things that happen in a small business, in your own personal life -- in an online digital form. You don't have to think about deleting things or removing things or restoring things all the time, just for the purposes of managing your storage.

Koman: I interviewed Brewster Kahle of Internet Archive recently and asked him what he thought were the impacts of having 100 terabytes of storage available. And he said you start to think about doing everything, doing it all. That AltaVista had the great breakthrough of "let's collect the whole Web, we don't need to cut anything out, we can store whatever we can get our hands on."

Rashid: Well, I think that happens for the individual too. Just think about all the things that you do, right? You'd like to be able to get that back in some cases. You don't ever know exactly when you want to get it back. I mean everybody's had the feeling of, "I just deleted something and now I need it back. Or I was just looking for something I did last year and I can't find it anymore. " There's no reason that can't just be online. It's difficult for a single human being to generate more than we'll be able to put in storage, and that opens up a lot of ways of really helping people do their jobs, helping people to organize their lives, that we didn't really have available to us before.

I think that's very exciting. And then from a software perspective it raises a lot of issues like, how do I manage all of this? How do I find the thing I really want instead of all the other stuff? How do I protect it, from a privacy perspective? There's just a lot of interesting, exciting computer science issues this raises.

Koman: Another question it raises for me is will the software be robust enough to move through so much stuff? If you never throw out an email, you reach a point where Outlook isn't really able to move through, say, 10,000 email messages.

Rashid: Sure. Because it was not architected to do that. I mean I think one of the things that you really have to do, as we move forward, as we think about this kind of change that storage is going to bring to us, is to say, we have to now think about architecting our systems and our applications without those kinds of limits.

I think you have to start thinking in terms of, what if I had a petabyte [1,024 terabytes] of information, that I needed to manage; how am I going to manage that and how am I going to make sure that my applications can get the things that they need? It opens up questions of what are the search strategies that I'm going to use? A lot of things will be there, the question is how do you find them? How do you index them? How do you manage them?

But it just opens up a lot of new core opportunities too. I mean we only have that much information. You now can correlate a cross set and then discover things that you didn't otherwise know. One of the things that one of our researchers has been looking at is ways of using the huge amount of data in the Internet, not just to answer questions by giving you back articles to read, but to answer questions by actually answering your question ... using the redundancy and using some linguistic techniques to extract the actual answer that you wanted, as opposed to just pointing you at a bunch of articles. And I think again as you collect more data, you can begin to use these data-mining techniques to effectively take advantage of the fact that there's redundancy, and that redundancy usually means something is important, so that may be the thing that you're really looking for.

Koman: How quickly are we likely to see an Internet that actually answers your question?

Rashid: Again, there's a lot of research that has to be done, but I think the results from work that some of our people and people in other places are doing are beginning to be somewhat promising there. I'd say probably in five years you can expect to have something like that -- probably not for every question -- but for a lot of basic factual questions, yes, you ought to see that in the next five years.

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