Twenty-five years ago, a 15-year-old high school freshman named Richard Skrenta wrote the world's first computer
virus called Elk Cloner on an Apple II computer. What started as a teenage prank ended up infecting floppy disks where the machine's operating system resided.
Interested in a programming career, Skrenta studied computer science at Northwestern University in Chicago. After graduation, he worked in computer security at places like Commodore Business Machines, Unix System Laboratories and Sun Microsystems Inc.
Now 39, Skrenta has stepped out of the realm of security to co-found Topix.net, a news aggregation Web site where he serves as the company's chief executive officer. With the RSA Conference coming up next week in San Francisco, Skrenta spoke with SearchWinIT.com recently about the generation of virus writers who succeeded him and the future of software.
SearchWinIT.com: In 1982, how did the powers that be at your high school receive your virus?
Richard Skrenta: It was on the level of a practical joke. I wrote an inoculation program that would take the virus off the floppies. It spread by itself, and it got onto my math teacher's floppy disk. He got quite angry with me and said he wanted to wring my neck, but other than that, there was no 'official' response. It was so new at the time that no one really knew what to make of it.
Your virus was relatively harmless. How do you compare the hackers who came after you?
Skrenta: Originally, hackers were focused on 'clever' hacking. Hackers wanted to do things in new, unexpected ways and see if certain things were even possible to do. It was more about being able to do cool things and being known for being able to do cool things. It wasn't about being a predator or finding ways to increase spam, which seems to be much more the case now.
At one point you wanted to write a new computer language. What happened?
Skrenta: Well, it's like every writer who wants to write the Great American Novel, but once they start working on it, they realize how hard it is to write it. For computer programmers, the Great American Novel translates to writing a new computer language. But then you start doing it and you realize, 'Wow, this is really difficult.' You realize just how useful C+ and Java are.
You've said that the next frontier will start where traditional operating systems end. Can you expand on that?
Skrenta: Sure, take Google for example. They have vast numbers of servers, reportedly as many as half a million. That is a ridiculous number of servers. Think of the administrative and logistic nightmare that is. Five hundred thousand servers are so far beyond what most places have. How do you coordinate 500 nodes? That's pretty daunting for programmers to do – it's a real black art managing all that.
Think about the difficulties of updating an existing operating system or how a company like that would outgrow its applications. Google continues to do research around operating systems, and I think they're coming up with some pretty innovative stuff.
People think of Google as an advertising company or a search engine technology company. But underneath Google's hood, a lot of its success is that for every [artificial intelligence] Ph.D. with a fancy, clever algorithm, there are three other people enabling that person with hardware and an operating system that manages the machines. What they have [is something] you are not going to get off the shelf. They put together the hardware in the way it works best for them, and they write their own software -- which they don't share with anyone because it is their competitive advantage.
Aside from Topix.net, what interests you the most in technology right now?
Skrenta: I'm very interested in AI and natural languages and protocols. In the '70s and '80s we didn't have the computing power that is available now.
There have been a lot of strides in AI, such as advances in automatic translations software, which, in best of breed, no longer results in stilted prose. There are technologies, as they say, which are always overestimated in the short term but underestimated in the long term, and I think that is probably the case with AI. I just think that in the next 10 to 15 years there will be far-reaching technology developed in artificial intelligence that we've only seen in science fiction so far, and that's going to be pretty exciting.
What advice do you have for young people who are interested in computer programming?
Skrenta: If you're curious about a technology, learn everything you can about it. Write programs, and get books about it. [Programming] is very rewarding. People should encourage their kids to write code. It's good for their brain cells.