Part 1 of 2 in an extensive review of Charles Simonyi's life and work.
In a career spanning four decades, every time he has confronted some intractable problem in software or life, he has tried to solve it by stepping outside or above it. He even has a name for his favorite gambit: he calls it "going meta." In his youth in 1960s Hungary, he learned the basics of computing on an antiquated Soviet mainframe powered by vacuum tubes, then engineered his own escape to the West. In the 1970s, at Xerox's legendary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), as part of the team that invented personal computing, Simonyi wrote the first modern application: a word processor that banished the complex codes then used to tag text and displayed a document as it would look on paper. Whether in his Stanford University doctoral dissertation on a "meta-programming" approach to boosting programmer productivity, his career at Microsoft organizing legions of software developers and teaching them how to structure their code, or his planned voyage into Earth orbit this spring, moving beyond established ways of doing things has always been Simonyi's method. Now he is plotting what he hopes will be his most vaulting meta-move of all. Simonyi believes he can solve a host of stubborn problems that have always plagued computers by offering everyone who uses them, and the coders who program them, a higher-order view of software.