Is Tech Upstart Cullen Dudas the Next Steve Jobs?

Who’d take Cullen Dudas, 21, and his new operating system seriously? Winston Ross says we might have to.

You’d be forgiven for mistaking Cullen Dudas for a twerp. He is slinking around the Consumer Electronics Show in skinny jeans and a sleeveless black hoodie, a fingerless glove on one hand, his hair dyed white, and a semipermanent adolescent smirk on his face, drinking a Sierra Nevada and smoking Marlboro Lights.

Then he pulls out his phone, and before long, you’d be forgiven for thinking that maybe this 21-year-old upstart is the next Steve Jobs.

Dudas is hellbent on reinventing the operating system, which for all you non–tech wonks means he wants to change how it looks and feels to use a computer. What’s on his phone is just a small sneak peek, an app he built that integrates a bunch of music-playing applications—Pandora, Spotify, his own music library—into one place. So instead of having to switch apps, he can listen to a Pandora song one minute, a sample from his iTunes library the next. And before long, if he succeeds at what at this point might seem a pretty quixotic quest, you’ll be able to do that too.

Dudas grew up in Cleveland and was exposed to technology young, like a lot of kids his age. Dad announced when Dudas was 4 or 5 years old that he was bringing home a computer and a mouse, which the youngster took to mean “we were actually getting a pet mouse. We had a pet hamster. It made sense.”

Once that initial disappointment faded, Dudas found himself entranced by the thing that could make that other thing do stuff, and by age 12, he was a full-fledged (and self-described) nerd, plugged in enough to the tech world that he knew Microsoft was working on an operating system called Longhorn. If he went to the company’s website and lied about his age, he could sign up to be a beta tester, pointing and clicking everywhere—for unpaid hours and hours on end—until some bug popped up, which he could then report back to the company so it could tweak the system.

Longhorn was “super inspiring,” Dudas says, because it included graphics that were way more advanced than anything Apple was then doing, including animated window minimizing, transparency in the interface, and a “radically redesigned task bar.” But the operating system was shuttered in favor of Vista—which Dudas won’t come out and say was awful, but which just about everyone knows by now was awful. Experiencing Vista, he says with a knowing look, convinced him he needed to take matters into his own hands.

A few years into the beta-testing business, Dudas was fat—he weighed 210 pounds thanks to all those junk-food-fueled hours at the computer on “bug safaris”—but successful. By the time he was 15, he had proved himself so useful by spotting so many bugs that Microsoft flew him out to headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to talk job prospects. Once his would-be boss met him at the airport and realized he’d been duped by a teenager, the ruse was over. But the boy’s relationship with the company wasn’t.

Dudas, who has since slimmed back down to rail thin, in case you were wondering, says his Microsoft handlers continued to let him beta-test, as long as he promised not to tell anyone they knew he was underage. Not long after he graduated high school, he landed a full-time job with the company. At 19 years old, Dudas found himself on the team designing the user interface for Xbox Kinect.

Six months later, the upstart decided he was ready to strike out on his own. In January 2010, he founded Lumier in San Francisco. After a series of unsuccessful pitch meetings, he found his first investor, a high-ranking executive at Microsoft he doesn’t want to name. Since then, 50 more venture capitalists have climbed aboard this high-school graduate’s wagon. Tech heavyweight Peter Thiel, the guy who started PayPal, is among them. So is Lady Gaga.

Dudas is young but not naive, so he’s well aware that the operating-system business is much like the American political system: there are two big dogs, and all the rest is chatter. You can try to work outside the realm of Microsoft and Apple, to go “open source,” but it’s not going to go anywhere soon. So when he says he wants to reinvent the operating system, he’s really talking about reinventing Windows. Apple doesn’t need his help. “They’re doing just fine,” he says.

Windows, on the other hand, ain’t what it could be. Dudas finds this baffling. You’d think at some point Mac’s competitors would start to catch up, would at least do a better, if thinly veiled, job of duplicating Apple’s slick design and user interface. And yet, for one reason or another, it doesn’t happen, which is why the average PC sells for a little over $400 and the average Mac sells for more than $1,400.

While you or I might find it intimidating—or downright crazy—to go up against the MacBook Pro, Dudas notes that it’s not a battle he has to win to make a killing. If he could design an operating system and sell it to Windows, or sell parts of it to Windows and make it even a little more user-friendly or cool or fast or useful, that might begin to slowly ramp up demand—and the asking price—for those products. Every $50 increase in that average sale price represents millions of dollars in revenue.

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Why computers, though? Dudas says he thinks the tablet market is overhyped and soon to saturate—at some point, everyone will have one, and they won’t need to be replaced often. And all the tech bloggers and geeks out there eager to dismiss laptops and desktops as “yesterday’s news” are forgetting that tablets can’t really replace computers, he says.

“There’s no money to be made there,” at least not for long, he says.

The next important question, of course, is how. And that’s when the ideas come spilling out of Dudas’s head, ideas he’s already put into motion, in one form or another. “Far out” stuff, like “natural language processing,” where the operating system pays attention to the kinds of phrases and words you’re using as you type an email or text document, and then at the stroke of a key pops up all the related documents to whatever phrase or word you want to find connections to—either on your desktop or online. Tweets, other emails, other documents, whatever. Fun stuff, too, like instead of a window minimizing with Apple’s “genie” effect, “we can make it do a backflip and explode, if you wanted it to,” he says. Or have documents fly in from all corners, like leaves rustling in the wind while they fly. All music- and video-related software and apps controlled with a single interface, right on the computer.

“It doesn’t make sense to have all these overlapping functions when they should all be working together,” he says.

Dudas calls the concept a “personal operating system,” one that’s highly customizable. A rollout is planned in the next couple of weeks, and he’s accepting beta sign-ups now. He is at CES this week just to make connections, not necessarily to hype his OS, he says, but he’s happy to explain it to anyone who wants to listen.

“We can do so much more,” he says. “We can enable to be so much more efficient. I want to believe there’s a better future for computing.”

He’s probably right. And it’s probably not the last time you’ll hear from him.