It's a shame about Ray Ozzie

I've never been too good with names
The cellar door was open, I could never stay away
I know it's probably not my place
It's either or, I'm hoping for a simple way to say
It's a shame about Ray
In the stone, under the dust
His name is still engraved
Some things need to go away
It's a shame about Ray

-- From Lemonheads song "It's a Shame About Ray"

Ray Ozzie is like one of those Japanese executives moved to a back office and left to do nothing more substantial than collect a paycheck. His role at Microsoft is effectively over, really was in 2009. Ozzie's stepping down as Chief Software Architect marks the end of any hope there will be meaningful revolution within Microsoft. The Office and Windows hawks have effectively killed open-thinking doves.

I'm not shocked by Ozzie's new nothing role, seeing how his role has been much of nothing since a late-2009 reorganization. From the great tech visionary, who might have remade Microsoft into something better, CEO Steve Ballmer and COO Kevin Turner carved out a life-size cardboard cut-out. It bore resemblance to Ozzie, but had no more animation than my vintage 1970s pet rock. What's most surprising from today's announcement: The shunning of Ozzie to some unnamed role in Entertainment and Devices division didn't come sooner. More surprising: He's not going boot out the door right away.

Not One of Ballmer's Boys

I've wondered about Ozzie's future at Microsoft since Chairman Bill Gates stepped aside from full-time responsibilities in July 2008. After all, Ozzie was a Gates hire (through acquisition), and the two men seem to have intellectually lots in common. Ozzie wasn't Ballmer's boy, however. Microsoft's CEO is the consummate salesman, who wears his heart on his sleeve. Ozzie is more cerebral and quiet. Watching Ballmer and Ozzie together, on the rare occasions they shared the same venue, their differences glared like cotton candy and pigs on sticks.

I started hearing rumblings from Microsoft's inner sanctum even before Gates' departure. Ozzie was part of the top executive team, but he was like one of those flowery Hawaiian shirts that suit-and-tie man Ballmer couldn't bring himself to put on. Ozzie really wasn't part of Ballmer's closer inner circle, or so I heard. The reasons aren't rocket science. Ozzie's cloud services platform represented radical change that Microsoft executives addicted to the Office and Windows ATM machines feared and maybe even resented. If Office and Windows minted money so well, why should these execs support something radical that could undo the revenue flow? Particularly after Windows Vista's disastrous release, Microsoft management split among Office and Windows hawks and cloud computing/new thinking doves. Turner belonged to the hawk camp -- or so I repeatedly heard -- while Ballmer waffled between them but with greater allegiance to the hawks.

In February 2008, I posted for eWEEK "The 25 Most Influential People at Microsoft." I later joked that the "25" turned into a death list -- influentials cast from Microsoft. About half the people on the list, including real visionaries like J Allard, Robbie Bach and Gary Flake, have since left Microsoft -- or were quietly but firmly booted out (as in "take the shares and severance and shut up, kid"). Ozzie ranked No.2 on the list but with a down arrow. The list fairly evenly split among influential Microsoft hawks and doves, and it's this latter category where execs died off one by one. Top-ranked influential Turner really led the hawks, while Ozzie more or less represented the doves.

Despite the inner Microsoft leadership conflict that occasionally reached my ears, I had lots of hope for Microsoft throughout much of 2007 and 2008:

  • Ozzie pushed Microsoft's cloud strategy, which promised better interoperability for everyone.
  • Microsoft incubations projects -- Flake's Live Labs among them -- acted like internal startups.
  • Many new Microsoft sanctioned and skunkworks projects worked well with competing browsers and other software.

The "New Normal" is the Old One

Still I wondered about Microsoft's future direction. Throughout 2008, I continued to hear more about Ozzie being more the odd man out, for lots of reasons. Office 2007 reinvigorated the Business division's influence, while Windows Vista's successor looked more like a winner. Meanwhile, the server group continued gaining customers against Linux and Unix. Perhaps most significantly came the stock market crash of September 2008, which brought the limping U.S. economy to a screaming halt -- or so it felt to many.

For months after the crash, Ballmer spoke about a fundamental reset to a lower economic level. He aptly expressed his thinking a year later in executive customer memo: "The New Efficiency," which described the "new normal" and how businesses need to cut costs and use technology to increase efficiency. But the "new normal" for Microsoft was resurgence of the old normal. The econolypse forced Microsoft managers to make some hard decisions about future product development. In the 5,800 layoffs that followed, Microsoft execs cut or closed most innovative incubation projects. By early 2009, with the Office-Windows-Windows Server applications stack sure to revive with new products releasing within 12-15 months, hawks tore into the cloud service doves. Whatever Azure could have been, it would become something else -- an extension to Microsoft's core apps stack.

Whither Cairo, Azure?

In my PDC 2009 post mortem, I made a startling observation about Ozzie's role and the cloud strategy:

During PDC 2008, Microsoft's Web services pitchman, Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, gave a rousing pitch for Azure. He convinced that Azure would be a cloud-based operating system developers would write their applications to. The strategy beamed with innovation. A year later, the pitch came across as something much different. Ozzie still talked about a cloud OS, but the deliverables and new services were about databases. It seemed as if Microsoft had pulled a Windows Longhorn, dumping features and shifting strategies before reaching the destination.

Then in December 2009 came a shocking reorganization that created the Server & Cloud division and in the process essentially sidelined Ozzie. He was a herder without sheep. The people who once reported to him reported to someone else. I blogged:

What has me puzzled here is Ozzie's role. Exactly what is it? If there's a cloud in this reorganization it's not in the new division's name but the one in my mind about what's next for Ozzie. Microsoft's chief software architect has been the driving force behind Microsoft's cloud computing strategy. Does he just assume a new role with the official Azure launch coming on January 1? Is Ozzie being pushed aside? Perhaps the reorganization signals his coming exit from Microsoft?

In June 2010, I ended years of defending Microsoft's CEO with the post: "I have lost confidence in Steve Ballmer's leadership." Many factors influenced the post, including Ozzie's effectively reduced role and the company's renewed obsession with the Office-Windows-Windows Server app stack. About Ozzie I wrote:

Microsoft's most ambitious visionary is seemingly silent. Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie once espoused a cloud vision that promised to be open and interoperable. Clearly the Office and Windows hawks have killed the cloud services doves. The Microsoft cloud is now little more than an adjunct to preserving the Office-Windows-Windows Server enterprise applications stack. Gates brought on Ozzie, but left him behind. Now the Office-Windows-Windows Server obsessed Microsoft leadership has cast off Ozzie's vision into the clouds; it floated away.

Epitaph to the Doves

It's a shame about Ray and all the Microsoft doves maimed or killed by the hawks. On October 18th, Apple announced record revenue of more than $20 billion for calendar third quarter. The most ambitious Wall Street analyst estimate puts Microsoft at $16.18 billion, with consensus of $15.83 billion. When Microsoft announces earnings next week, Apple will likely be the revenue leader -- a simply remarkable turnabout that follows Apple overtaking Microsoft market capitalization and its shares pushing past $300. Apple's success is a metaphor. Those companies that breakaway from their legacy and even reinvent their businesses for mobility and the cloud will inherit the next computing era. Ozzie represents a group of Microsoft thinkers that saw the future, and it ruined them.

If I make it through today
I'll know tomorrow not to put my feelings out on display
I'll put the cobwebs back in place
I've never been too good with names, but I remember faces
It's a shame about Ray
In the stone, under the dust
His name is still engraved
Some things need to go away
It's a shame about Ray

Update, October 19th: Today Microsoft announced new cloud service Office 365, which will immediately begin beta testing. The service is yet further confirmation about the hawks killing the doves. Surely it's not coincidence that Microsoft announced Ozzie's demotion/departure a day earlier. The cloud vision and visionary are gone.

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