MacKichan Software, Inc.
Barry MacKichan is an entrepreneur,
software developer, and mathematician. He holds an AB degree from Harvard and a
Ph.D. in mathematics from Stanford University. After an academic career that
included the Institute for Advanced Study, MIT, Duke, and New Mexico State
University, he got hooked on writing software while writing a word processor to
help writing mathematical papers.
He co-founded TCI Software Research, Inc., in 1981
and was CEO until 1988, when he left to join Microsoft. There he worked on
Microsoft Mail, the Microsoft Foundation Classes, and OLE 2.0. He retired in
1994. In the meantime, TCI Software Research was bought by International
Thomson Publishing; the acquisition was not successful, and so MacKichan bought
back the assets of TCI Software Research in 1998. Now under the name MacKichan
Software, Inc., the original owners and developers are proving that specialty
software products need to be developed and marketed by small, nimble,
MacKichan lives on Bainbridge Island, Washington,
with his wife Lynda, who is the business manager of MacKichan Software. They
have four grown, accomplished children, and enjoy raising llamas in their spare
time. Barry also does large format and wildlife photography when time
Resonance: In 1981 you co-founded TCI Software Research. What
need did you see unfulfilled at the time?
The state of the art then for writing mathematics
papers was the IBM Selectric typewriter with a drawer full of type balls. Word
processors had arrived for most people, but for mathematicians the fastest way
to write mathematics still was with a pen and paper.
Several of us
had written a word processor for Terak microcomputers, which were the first
ones we knew of that had re-definable character sets. When the IBM PC came out,
I read the assembly language listings in the technical reference manual and saw
that we could display whatever symbols we wanted in graphics mode. That was the
key. We started our company to write and market a technical word processor for
mathematicians, called T3 , which supported our company for the next ten
Resonance: What are the trends you see in
MacKichan: The sizes of the
chunks that programmers work with will continue to grow. We already have gone
from single machine instructions (assembly language) to gluing ActiveX objects
together. Software systems will more and more be built by linking larger and
larger objects together. The use of web browsers as a generic user interface is
an example of this.
Resonance: How do you see the
Internet affecting the way we view information and communications? Is the
Internet an invention of the same magnitude as the printing press?
MacKichan: The Internet will have a dramatic effect, but I
don't believe it will be as dramatic as the effect of the printing press. They
are both quantum jumps in our ability to communicate, but necessarily the first
and second jumps (the invention of writing and the printing press) have a more
dramatic impact than the later ones.
The Internet makes information,
which was available before, available at less cost and greater speed. The
change will be more incremental than revolutionary. The relative costs of
various types of information will change. This doesn't mean that the change
won't be dramatic: many of the ways we do business will change, and there are
quite a few occupations that won't last through the transition. The change in
politics may be as great as the change wrought by television - which has been
Resonance: Following up on your last answer,
what occupations do you see disappearing, or changing so dramatically that they
are in effect new? Also, in politics, do you see the Internet becoming the main
medium of election campaigns, perhaps altering the way campaigns are
MacKichan: A lot of occupations exist because
information is hard to find, and the web potentially makes it easy to find,
which threatens those occupations. Almost all intermediaries fall into this
category. I would be worried if I were a software or book distributor, a real
estate agent, or even, in the long term, a car salesman.
In some cases we will continue to pay, willingly, for
face-to-face contact. Teachers will still be important to our children, for
example. In other cases, we'll find we never wanted the face-to-face contact,
at the Motor Vehicle Department, for example.
The Internet will be important, it already is, in politics and
fund raising. I think it will become the main medium only when it is integrated
with television. A downside risk of the Internet is that it strengthens fringe
groups and single-issue groups by making it easier for like minds to find each
other to the exclusion of all others. I worry about the effect this might have.
After all, the real purpose of the political system is not to impose your view,
but to reach consensus, and anything that retards that can be a step
Resonance: Has the Web
created synergies that could otherwise never have existed?
MacKichan: Yes, just as the automobile, airplane, and
Resonance: Where do you see
computational power heading in the next decade? Are computers of the type
depicted in science fiction, such as Star Trek, a near-term reality?
MacKichan: I'm just an observer in this area. It seems like
the exponential increase in memory and processing power will continue for quite
a while longer.
When I was at Microsoft, I tried to get people to discuss
how to best use 2000 MIPS - to think about how it would change what we can and
should do with computers, and how the user interface should change. I never did
succeed in getting a continuing discussion going. Now 2000 MIPS looks pretty
Resonance: In particular, we are starting to
see voice recognition software becoming available for word processing
applications. Is this the beginning of the end for the keyboard in the modern
MacKichan: We have just announced voice input
for our products, which was developed by another small company, Metroplex Voice
Computing. It is pretty awesome to say "3D wave equation" and to see it appear
on the screen. Still, once you master it, the keyboard is pretty efficient and
probably will remain a component of almost all computers for a long time. I see
voice as another way of increasing the bandwidth between the human and the
computer. I've found that mixing voice and the keyboard is faster than either
one alone: I use voice as the way to call macros, and the keyboard to enter
A laudable use of voice recognition is making the computer
and its software available to users with disabilities. Now it is possible to
speak to one of our programs to display mathematics, to solve equations or to
simplify expressions. And the output can be in Braille. The only piece missing
is voice output for mathematics, and the MathML working group has addressed
this problem, so I expect it to happen in the next couple of years.
Resonance: You were a member of The Institute for Advanced
Study in 1968-1969 and then 1975-1976. What was the focus of your work at that
MacKichan: The first year I was pursuing
research questions that came out of my Ph.D. thesis on over-determined systems
of partial differential equations. The second session I was working on problems
in the theory of several complex variables relating geometry to sets of
equations induced on submanifolds. These sets of equations are over-determined
systems of partial differential equations, so my field of research hadn't
really changed. A common thread in my interests was the relationship between
geometry and analysis.
Resonance: Could you give us
your impressions of the differences between the academic and entrepreneurial
MacKichan: There are very smart people in
both worlds. One of the attractions of Microsoft was that the people there
reminded me of a good graduate school.
What I like about the
entrepreneurial world is that the goal is really very simple: to produce
something that a lot of people really want or need and will pay for. Even if
99% of the people don't want it or care for it, the remaining one percent can
make you succeed.
In academia, the market is very much smaller. You
can spend several years writing some papers, and the group that will judge
whether they are good or great is frequently much smaller, perhaps a dozen, and
in such a small group, random factors such as personal rivalries and
personality quirks can make quite a difference. This is the reason, I think,
why politics plays such a role in academics. I'd rather my products be judged
by a larger market.
Resonance: A key product of
MacKichan Software is Scientific Workplace. I have used it often and find it
indispensable to my scientific word processing. One feature that I especially
appreciate is the embedded subset of MAPLE. Where do you see this package
heading in future incarnations? Do you see embedding a basic drawing tool so
that authors can easily create publication quality schematics and sketches for
MacKichan: One of the things I
worked on at Microsoft was OLE 2.0 (Object Linking and Embedding), a mechanism
for embedding objects in documents. In this case, the program that manages the
document doesn't need to understand the data format of the embedded object. It
simply hands the data to the server, which modifies the data and presents its
own interface to the user. An embedded drawing tool would fall into this
Our integration with Maple is different in that we create
the data - an equation or a mathematical expression - without invoking Maple,
and then we translate it to send it to Maple. The link between the applications
is not at all like OLE, since it based on a flow of data that is manipulated by
both applications. When Maple has done its work, we translate Maple's output to
our form - a subset of LaTex, a typesetting language for mathematics. This
translation from LaTex to Maple is not trivial. You need to apply heuristics to
decide if f(x+y) is a function applied to the quantity (x+y) or is the product
of f with the quantity (x+y), and to know that dy/dx is not a fraction. You
have to decide the same things to know how to do voice output of mathematics,
by the way. The heart of the problem is that LaTex contains information on how
a mathematical expression appears, but it does not include the mathematical
content. It is indifferent to whether dy/dx is a derivative or a fraction.
Our products currently don't support OLE 2.0, but this will change. At
that time you will be able to use any embeddable drawing tool; I expect that we
will not be writing one, since our time is better spent on our special area of
expertise, providing a great interface for interacting with mathematics.
Integration of the type we have with Maple is improved by standards for
the data that is passed between the two applications. There is currently an
emerging standard for the representation of mathematics called MathML
(Mathematics Markup Language). We are on the MathML committee, and I expect
that we will support MathML in the near future. MathML is an application of XML
(eXtensible Markup Language), which allows tagging all sorts of data, which
will encourage the sharing of data between applications. This is a big step
forward, I believe.
The technology we have can be applied to the
problem of entering MathML. Users, we think, will continue to want to type
simply dy/dx or f(x+y) without having to tell a program that they are writing a
derivative or a function. We expect to be able to use the same heuristics we
are using with our Maple connection to make the entry of MathML as simple as
our current interface.
Resonance: Can you tell us
about other project(s) you are currently working on?
MacKichan: Running MacKichan Software is taking almost all my
time. Before I bought back into business, I spent some time working on literate
programming tools. These are tools, first developed by Donald Knuth that allow
you to write a program as you would a book: you can write paragraphs of design
and explanation interspersed with bite-sized fragments of code. The tools will
then produce a nicely formatted document explaining the program and compilable
code that produces the program. I was modifying the noweb system to produce XML
output, so that the document explaining the program would be a fully
cross-referenced web page. The intention was to produce tools that would
integrate with Microsoft's Visual Studio, but now the project is on hold.
Resonance: Looking at the kind of authoring tools that
exist, both for scientific as well as other writing, and marrying them with the
revolutionary Internet, what do you think is the future of book publishing?
MacKichan: I'll get out on a limb and predict that
books will not be obsolete soon, certainly not in my lifetime. The technology
of a finely bound, carefully printed book is superb.
Having said that, I also think that most of what is printed
now will be delivered online in the future. Reference information, especially
information that is soon outdated, shouldn't be printed.
The eventual outcome will probably depend on the type of book.
For the first type, a self-contained book such as a mystery novel, the issue
will be settled by economics and ergonomics: bits are cheaper to deliver, and
paper currently is easier and more comfortable to read. I think that electronic
delivery will eventually win except for enduring literature. Shakespeare and
Melville will always be available on paper, I hope.
For the second type, a book with references, such as a history
book, the value of the electronic form increases as the number of references in
electronic form increases. This is sort of like Metcalfe's Law for networks
(which says that the value of a network increases as the square of the number
of users). The real payoff comes in converting a library to electronic
form, but the payoff of converting an individual book to electronic form is not
as great. When the library is converted, the reader can link to all the
references, perhaps even to the primary sources.
I think the area where the electronic form has the greatest
advantage over the printed form is in the mathematical and technical areas, and
this is the third type of book. You can argue (and this is not just marketing
hype) that what appears in a Scientific WorkPlace document is not just a
representation of mathematics -- like ink on a page -- but is a mathematical
object. You can view it as a mathematical expression; you can also compute with
it; graph it; run a simulation; or modify it. If you have a spring or an
electrical circuit, you can run a simulation, modify it, and run it again. The
tools for doing this are just starting to appear, but I predict that the value
of electronic books and online courses will be the greatest in the technical
areas, in spite of the fact that these are the slowest areas to convert to
electronic form because of the problems of representing mathematics. We see our
Scientific Notebook product as a first step in the direction of
providing a reader for such electronic books.
Resonance: Who are your
MacKichan: Hmm. One that influenced
our lives is Wendell Berry. His book, The Long-Legged House, which my wife and
I read in the late '60s, changed our lifestyle.
Another one in science
is Stuart Kaufmann, whose books relating biological questions to complexity
theory I find fascinating. The mathematics in them is not rigorous - he will
assume a mathematical theorem applies to a situation in which the conditions of
the theorem aren't satisfied exactly - but the ideas are fascinating. I enjoy
reading almost anything that comes from the Santa Fe Institute.
always loved wilderness, and so I enjoy works relating to the North American
wilderness - histories by Francis Parkman, Bernard DeVoto, and David Lavender.
I also have read most of what Viljhalmur Stefansson wrote about his
explorations in the Canadian Arctic in the teens and '20s- I shook his hand
when I was in eighth grade. And Farley Mowat, who visited, and wrote
passionately about, the Eskimos west of Hudson Bay where I took some canoe
trips and a dog team trip when I was younger.
What are some of your skills that permitted you to succeed as a
mathematician, software architect, and entrepreneur?
MacKichan: I think there is a lot in common between
mathematicians and software architects. My thesis advisor, Prof. Don Spencer,
stressed that mathematics was about structure, not just theorems. The point of
research is not to find more and more facts, but to understand how everything
Good software architecture should flow logically from a
few basic, orthogonal principles, just as mathematics flows from a few axioms
and definitions. When the user interface is designed this way, I think that it
is seen as reasonable, predictable, and understandable even by users who aren't
mathematically inclined and who couldn't tell you why they think the interface
is reasonable, predictable, and understandable.
As an entrepreneur,
I'm still influenced by my father. He started as an academic in Electrical
Engineering and tried several ventures before establishing a consulting
engineering company that at one time was the only company designing power
transmission systems and surveying them with aerial photography. I worked in
his office during the summers as I grew up and I'm sure that a lot of what I
know about running a business was absorbed during those years. Coincidentally,
we both made the transition from academia to business at the same age.
Resonance: What were some of your other interests?
MacKichan: I have always loved the wilderness. Starting when I
was 19, I took three long canoe trips in northern Canada. The first started
near Winnipeg and went to Hudson Bay. Once we got to Hudson Bay, we worked our
way up about 60 miles of the Nelson River and portaged about 7 miles to the
railway. The whole trip was about 750 miles. The other trips started farther
north and ended at the Eskimo settlements Eskimo Point and Baker Lake.
Back then there weren't GPS's or EPIRB's, and radios were heavy and bulky, so
we were completely isolated from the rest of the world for most of six weeks.
If something happened to us, it would be weeks before anybody started looking
for us. We had our adventures: once we lost a canoe in a rapids and had to swim
after it. We caught up with it a few hundred yards before the next waterfall in
the river. We swamped in a rapids and gashed the canoe. On one trip we took
four paddles for two people, and three broke. We learned a lot about
improvising and making do.
Later, I realized that this was great
training for launching a business. The situations are very similar: you plan,
you prepare, you worry, but the only way to move is to make the leap, take
care, use your wits, and don't look back.
More recently, I've indulged a
love of wildlife photography (35 mm.) and large format (4"x5") black and white
photography, mostly of natural subjects.
have mentioned the wilderness and nature several times as being significant in
your life and its path. Why is it special to you?
MacKichan: Partly it comes from my mother. When I was
eight and my brother was eleven, she took us on a canoe trip in the Minnesota
canoe country. It was the first time camping for all of us. Mom had always
wanted to go camping, but had never had the chance and was intimidated by the
popular myths of conquering the wilderness. Then she read a line in Canoe
Country, by Florence and Lee Jacques, that said you aren't allowed to take
a gun into the Quetico Park. Mom concluded that therefore a woman pushing 40
with two small boys would be safe, and off we went. Dad wasn't interested, and
didn't understand why we would want to sleep on the ground.
We went for three years. We never paddled very far, and we
must have looked comical on the portages, but we had fun. Several years later,
a friend and I turned the tables and started taking Mom on trips, seven or
eight summers altogether. She did the cooking, and we did the paddling and
portaging. This friend and his brother were with me on my first long canoe trip
to Hudson Bay. I was 19, and they were 17 and 15.
Maybe because I took these trips while I was coming of age,
they had a big effect on my attitudes. I learned a lot about what is essential
and what is not, about self-reliance, and self-confidence. I got so I feel very
comfortable in the wilderness, and a have a fondness for bleak, windswept
places. It is saddening to see the remoteness of these areas dwindle away
While in graduate school, I got up to the Sierras as often as
I could, as an antidote to the pressures. This was when I got interested in
wildlife photography, but it was a long time before I had the time and
equipment to pursue that seriously.
Resonance: What are the
roles of art in society? Does art do something for society that cannot be done
by anything else? How are art and science intertwined? Does science have a role
in art? And what about the role of art in science?
MacKichan: For me, photography provides a counterbalance to
the sometimes-excessive rationality of software development. In general, art
provides an outlet for our intuitive sides that wouldn't be acceptable in our
daily professional lives.
I think art is intertwined with just about
everything. So is science. As a photographer, I use technology all the
I've always thought of mathematics as more art than science.
It's true that proving a theorem is a very analytical process, but the real
accomplishment is knowing what theorems are provable, and making definitions
that create interesting mathematical objects. This is more art than science,
and it comes from a different place than rationality.
influence of mathematics on art is that of fractals. You see the influence of
the beautiful graphics of the Mandelbrot set in more and more art.
Resonance: Your training was as a mathematician; your Ph.D. in
mathematics from Stanford University. What attracted you to mathematics? What
was your research specialty? Do you still follow the work in this area?
MacKichan: I decided when I was in high school that I
wanted to be a mathematician. I had some early successes, some expository
papers published when I was in high school, that encouraged me.
research area was over-determined systems of partial differential equations and
several complex variables. (I have found that this answer almost always stops a
cocktail party conversation, usually with a confession that "Math was my worst
subject in school.")
I haven't followed work in the area since I left
academics in 1982.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person
of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you
MacKichan: Learn all you can, but remember
that the goal is to learn how to learn. The world is changing so fast that you
will have to continue learning all your life. Also, if you have a chance for a
big adventure, such as I had in canoeing in northern Canada, go for it. The
lessons will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Resonance: What do you consider to be a good first programming
language for a teenager to learn?
MacKichan: Java. I use C++, but it is carrying a lot of baggage from C.
Java is what C++ would be if it didn't have to remain compatible with C. It
satisfies the criteria for a first language: it is object oriented, it is
simple, and the design is clean.
you were having a discussion with any living person, who would it be and what
might some of your questions be?
MacKichan: There is a man, I don't remember
his name, who joined Admiral Byrd as a dogteam driver on one of Byrd's
Antarctic expeditions. Byrd named a mountain for him. A couple of years ago, as
a man in his eighties, he returned to climb the mountain.
love hearing about a great adventure, so I'd certainly ask him about the trip.
But what really interests me is how he has kept the vital spark burning so
brightly for so many years.
do you do in your free time?
MacKichan: My wife Lynda and I raise llamas. This is something we started
before we got back into business, but we are glad for the daily ritual of
taking care of them and relating to them on their terms. It brings us down to
earth twice a day. And the babies are so adorable.
Resonance: If you could solve just one of this
nation's/world's problems, which one would it be?
MacKichan: I used to be very passionate about saving what is left of the
world's wilderness, and then I thought that we would be doing well to survive
our own pollution and consumption. While I still am concerned about these, I am
not as pessimistic as I used to be. Glen Canyon dam will be removed, but it
might take 100,000 years for the river to grind it down. I now believe that our
over-consumption of resources and pollution will stop, whether from our
enlightened self-interest or because of increasing catastrophes. Enlightened
self-interest still has a chance. I think that the change in attitude that this
entails may bring about a renaissance in the values of art, culture, and
community. This may be a slow process.
The evolution of the computer
and communications may play a part in this, as communication comes to involve
less physical travel and fewer resources. I think our worlds will
simultaneously become more cosmopolitan and more local.