'Calm computing' creator dies at 46

Mark Weiser reminded the tech world that people are more important than processors.
Written by Bob Sullivan, Contributor on

When Mark Weiser, 46, died of cancer last week, the technology world lost one of its brightest minds. But Weiser's radical ideas - including his most famous, the notion of ubiquitous computing - were hardly his most important contribution.

Chief technologist at Xerox's renowned Palo Alto Research Center, Weiser's real impact came as the soul and conscience of Silicon Valley. He used his pulpit to remind anyone who would listen that in the battle of man vs. machine, we have let machines gain the upper hand.

But even as he delivered that alarming message, this gentle genius emitted an optimistic glow and a contagious enthusiasm that were entirely comforting; after all, Weiser had the answer: ubiquitous computing.

The term, which Weiser coined 10 years ago, is now in the vernacular among high-tech companies. It's usually used to describe a world teeming with little computing devices everywhere - in the paint on your walls, in your clothes, even hanging in the air. But Weiser recently changed the term to "calm computing," because his notion for the "next age of computing" is much more fundamental than the creation of tiny chips. It's about making computers so small and so simple that technology recedes into the background and stops interfering with our daily lives.

You don't want personal technology; you want personal relationships," Weiser said during a November interview in his office. Today, "smart" devices like pagers, cell phones and even computers usually add to our general sense of panic. "In the next age, how do we make technology help us be calmer, how do you change that equation? The basic way is you have to make it more invisible. You have to get it out of the way, out of your face, and into the environment and into your pockets, into your clothing."

A picture of serenity
Weiser was the perfect apologist for calmness; his wide eyes, soothing voice and unassuming manner made him a picture of serenity. Few left his presence without feeling at least a little calmer; he spent his last 10 years trying to instill his gift into the machines around him.

His name could easily be mistaken for a description; one easily got the sense he was a bit wiser than the rest of us.

His gentle touch might be why you haven't heard of him - unlike many researchers, Weiser didn't seem to mind that his name faded a bit into the background even as his ideas spread throughout the high-tech world.

But he led the battle to humanize technology, a fight that brought him to PARC in 1987. Director John Seely Brown convinced Weiser to leave a teaching position at the University of Maryland and join PARC largely because Brown was able to keep up during a discussion of the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Heidegger's work examines the relationship between man and machine, suggesting technology has deprived man of humanity.

"I was just blown away," Brown said. "Here was this computer scientist, and he wanted to interview me on philosophy."

Championed 'embodied virtuality'
At the time, the high-tech world was abuzz with the notion of virtual reality, with the excitement of creating an artificial world that people could be pushed into. Weiser ran the other direction; he wanted to drag computers into the real world, a notion then called "embodied virtuality."

Ten years later, the notion of little embedded computers all around our lives seems obvious - Sun Microsystems, for example, is betting the Java programming language on it. Meanwhile virtual reality came and went.

Still, high-tech camps have dragged the notion of ubiquitous computing in disparate directions, many that Weiser believed might add to our sense of everyday panic. When he was diagnosed with gastric cancer about six weeks ago, he was told he had 18 months to live. He told Brown he would spend his remaining time writing a book clearing up some of the confusion around ubiquitous computing, something of a bill of rights for people to hold up against the coming wave of smaller, smarter computers.

"I want to write the book I never got the chance to write," Brown recalls Weiser saying. "All I care about now is writing that book by the seaside on the real essence of ubiquitous computing. They've completely missed the non-technical part of what ubiquitous computing is all about.'

PARC "dropped all kinds of things" and set up special technology to take dictation from Weiser and automatically transmit daily dispatches to the research center, Brown said. But the cancer spread much more quickly than initially expected, and with each visit to the doctor, his life expectancy shrank. He eventually died of liver failure.

"I don't even think he got to write the first paragraph," Brown said.

Does this technology make us calmer?
But he did get to firmly install his vision of kinder, gentler computers in the hallways of PARC. During MSNBC's November visit, researchers in all corners showed they were well-drilled in Weiser's mantra. They religiously repeated it: "But does this technology make us calmer?"

"His work is picked up on some level," Brown said. "We have a lot of young kids at PARC who deeply know what he was up to, the mantra of fitting technology to people instead of the other way around. A lot of the wonderful spirit of Mark lives in the building.

"Nevertheless, it is a profoundly untimely death. The sensibilities he brings to the table is what society needs more than ever - 'Has computing really helped us that much? Is it really making our lives that much better?"

Weiser lived the calmness he preached. He described his complex ideas with a gentle, patient voice in a style that mimicked that of a kindergarten teacher explaining electricity to her students. His explanations were plain, riddled with metaphors, but never condescending.

After all, how could a drummer be condescending? His band, Severe Tire Damage, pirated the M-bone in 1993 just before the Rolling Stones' Internet debut - giving Severe Tire Damage the distinction of "first live concert on the Net." The band's Web site is laced with irreverence; clicking on a link that no longer works produces this message: "YOU ARE UGLY AND YOUR MOTHER DRESSES YOU FUNNY. Because we know who you are and, quite frankly, we don't like you at all we are not allowing you access to the file you asked for."

College dropout
Weiser was unconventional from the start. He dropped out of college and never earned an undergraduate degree. But he made a name for himself as a programmer in the 1970s and was invited directly into the University of Michigan's graduate computer science program. He earned a Ph.D. in 1979.

He message of adapting computers to the real world resonated because he lived there, too. The first link on his Web site, which is otherwise devoted to all things technical, connects visitors to a page full of snapshots of his vacation last year to Greece with his daughter, who had just turned 21.

"The big difference between Mark and lots of other folks who are deep into computers was he made his living at the edge of where computers connected to people," said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. "He swam very much against the stream."

He is survived by his wife, Vicky Reich, a librarian at Stanford; his mother, Audra Weiser, of Port Jefferson Station, Calif.; a sister, Ann, of Oakland, Calif.; and two daughters, Corinne Reich-Weiser and Nicole Reich-Weiser. PARC officials say they might hold a memorial service next week at the research center or a more public ceremony in the summer.

A memorial Web site, a sort of online wake, has been set up at www-sul.stanford.edu/weiser.

Condolences may be sent to the family via communications@parc.xerox.com; donations may be made to provide tuition scholarships to computer science undergraduates at the University of California, Berkeley.

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