Skip to main content

On April 28, 2021, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) announced that Michael Franz, Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science in UCI’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), has been selected to receive the ACM Charles P. “Chuck” Thacker Breakthrough in Computing Award. The award recognizes “individuals or groups who have made surprising, disruptive, or leapfrog contributions to computing ideas or technologies.” Franz is being recognized for his development of just-in-time (JIT) compilation techniques that enable fast and feature-rich web services on the internet — services now used by billions of people daily with applications such as Gmail and Facebook.

“This is a wonderful recognition,” says Franz. “Without fast compilation of dynamic languages, most of the services that we now take for granted on the web could not exist today.”

Franz first started working on such techniques with his Ph.D. thesis in the early 1990s. “It is a little bit of an irony in fact that when I first arrived at UCI in the late 1990s, there were many senior faculty trying to nudge me away from working on topics related to compilers and just-in-time compilation, because, as one senior colleague put it, ‘everything that can possibly be discovered in this field has already been discovered.’ Of course, as we know now, nothing could have been further from the truth.”

As noted in the award announcement, by inventing a new compilation technique and using it to develop a JIT compiler for JavaScript, which was incorporated into the Firefox browser through a collaboration with Mozilla, Franz enabled massive growth in the use of JavaScript, now one of the world’s most heavily used programming languages.

“We all use web-based applications every day and they are now so prevalent that we often forget how revolutionary they were when they were first introduced,” said ACM President Gabriele Kotsis. “Michael Franz’s work certainly fits the Thacker Award’s criteria for ‘leapfrog contributions to computing ideas and technologies.’ Franz displayed foresight in working with Mozilla to implement his ideas on their browser and in making his technology open source, so that it could be continually refined and adapted by developers worldwide.”

Franz stresses the contributions of his students along the way. “I want to recognize all the fantastic students who have worked with me at UCI over the years — overall, I have graduated 34 Ph.D.s as their primary adviser,” he says. “While it is usually the professor who gets all the glory, my collaborators on most of this groundbreaking research were UCI graduate students and postdocs. I am very grateful for their contribution and it has been both a joy and a privilege to serve as their adviser.”

Franz also recognizes the University of California. “I need to acknowledge the wisdom of the University of California, which agreed to donate the intellectual property rights to some of our inventions to the open source community.” Franz and his Ph.D. student Andreas Gal received a U.S. patent on the compiler technology that underlies the original JIT compiler in Firefox, a patent owned by UC. “By allowing this technology to be used for free without royalties, UC played a crucial part in making the internet a more open and inclusive place and bridging the digital divide between rich and poor. We can all be proud of that.”

As a recipient of the award, Franz is invited give the ACM Breakthrough Lecture at a major ACM conference, and he will receive a $100,000 cash prize, with financial support provided by Microsoft.

“Michael Franz’s work on just-in-time compilation is a great choice for the Breakthrough in Computing honor,” said Eric Horvitz, Microsoft’s Chief Scientific Officer. “His work has been transformative, enabling today’s rich web experiences by allowing websites to execute sophisticated, interactive programs nearly instantaneously. Michael Franz’s insights, and his successful application of those insights, have had tremendous real-world impact.”

— Shani Murray