Ray Ozzie falls from grace but not the cloud

Microsoft's former Chief Software Architect is blogging again -- after nearly five years' absence. Ray Ozzie has posted a disturbing memo, "Dawn of a New Day," sent to Microsoft "executive staff and direct reports." Eh, I thought Ozzie no longer had direct reports. The memo cheers Microsoft's services strategy extending Office and Windows to the cloud. Early sections of Ozzie's missive reads more like a press release for the past -- dawn of the old day -- and bears little resemblance to the interoperable, operating system in the clouds pitch that he made for years -- at least until PDC 2009. That said, he also issues a warning about a post-PC era Microsoft executives shouldn't ignore. Seeing as Ozzie was ignored before, what hope is there that they'll listen now? As I asserted 10 days ago, "It's a shame about Ray Ozzie."

The memo's timing is most certainly not coincidental. October 18th news about Ozzie's demotion and imminent departure came the day before Microsoft announced Office 365, essentially a forthcoming extension of the existing cloud-based productivity suite strategy. Office 365 represents a cloud services strategy many steps removed from the one Ozzie originally articulated for Microsoft. Ozzie represented a different vision. Microsoft dispatched the visionary before asserting an extension to the Office-Windows-Windows applications stack, rather than fully embracing the cloud-connected -- anytime, anywhere and on anything -- strategy he long advocated. Ozzie's memo comes just days before Microsoft convenes PDC 2010, on October 28th. In the strangest of coincidences -- or not if Ozzie is trying to make another point -- the memo is dated the 28th. There is no date stamp on the blog post, but it looks like an October 25th posting. His last gargantuan memo was Oct. 28, 2005, so timing has two points of significance -- the five-year anniversary and his last word before the next Microsoft developer conference.

Seeing Shapes in the Cloud

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What does that last word represent? I can only speculate, not having communicated with Ozzie about the matter. Perhaps he is being the good company man, in part siding with Microsoft's actuated strategy. Perhaps he is being compelled to support the position, as condition of severance (e.g., don't break rank). Perhaps he has truly changed his position about what is the correct strategy for Microsoft to reach the cloud. Perhaps he is living in denial about vision versus reality. Perhaps he is trying to assert his importance and relevance as a visionary by authoring a 3,400-word exit memo. More likely, the reasons are a mixture of some or all these speculations.

Clearly, the early memo sides with the current cloud strategy. As I explained in the "shame about Ray" post, there was an internal struggle at Microsoft for years between the Office-Windows-Windows Server hawks and the open-thinking/cloud services doves. The hawks killed the doves, something I clearly and, quite unexpectedly, came to realize after Ozzie's PDC 2009 speech detailing Azure deliverables strayed so far from the vision articulated over the previous two years, most notably during PDC 2008.

Some rah, rah, Microsoft-is-the-greatest-most-visionary-cloud-company-on-planet-earth snippets:

We're truly all in with regard to services. I'm incredibly proud of the people and the work that has been done across the company, and of the way that we've turned this services transformation into opportunities that will pay off for years to come.

In the realm of the service-centric 'seamless OS' we're well on the path to having Windows Live serve as an optional yet natural services complement to the Windows and Office software. In the realm of 'seamless productivity', Office 365 and our 2010 Office, SharePoint and Live deliverables have shifted Office from being PC-centric toward now also robustly spanning the web and mobile. In 'seamless entertainment', Xbox Live has transformed Xbox into a real-time, social, media-rich TV experience.

Someone pinch me and explain exactly where in Ozzie's pre-PDC 2009 musings did he talk about Windows Live as having such a central services role and being the "service-centric seamless OS" for the cloud? Windows Live had a lesser role, which clearly has changed since the division was sucked into the Windows group (now called Windows and Windows Live). More from Ozzie:

Our products are now more relevant than ever. Bing has blossomed and its advertising, social, metadata & real-time analytics capabilities are growing to power every one of our myriad services offerings. Over the years the Windows client expanded its relevance even with the rise of low-cost netbooks. Office expanded its relevance even with a shift toward open data formats & web-based productivity. Our server assets have had greater relevance even with a marked shift toward virtualization & cloud computing.

It's interesting how Ozzie uses relevance with respect to Microsoft products. For years, I've argued -- and most certainly not by myself -- that cloud-connected devices are shifting computing and informational relevance away from PCs.

Of all the statements that most disheartened me in the memo:

Quite important to me, I'm also quite proud of the degree to which we've continued to grow and mature in the area of responsible competition, and the breadth and depth of our cultural shift toward genuine openness, interoperability and privacy which are now such key cornerstones of everything we do.

I disagree. Microsoft largely muted talk about openness and interoperability from PDC 2009. Ozzie could claim to be "quite proud" should openness and interoperability be major themes of PDC 2010. Based on the current agenda, the focus will be very much about building for Microsoft platforms -- granted, with Azure being one of them -- not openness or interoperability.

Gazing the Skies Ahead

After delivering mountains of Microsoft praise and back-slapping self-congratulations, Ozzie demonstrates that he hasn't yet abdicated role of the visionary -- even if he states some of the obvious (as it is today but not as it was five years ago). In praising the PC's success -- and 25th anniversary of Windows 1.0 -- he acknowledges: "It's difficult for many of us to even imagine that this could ever change." But change it will, as Ozzie rightly asserts. In a seering indictment of the PC software model, Ozzie declares that:

Complexity kills. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT. Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use. Complexity introduces security challenges. Complexity causes administrator frustration...so long as customer or competitive requirements drive teams to build layers of new function on top of a complex core, ultimately a limit will be reached. Fragility can grow to constrain agility. Some deep architectural strengths can become irrelevant -- or worse, can become hindrances.

He's absolutely right. In a private presentation to Microsoft managers in 2005, I explained part of so-called Web 2.0's appeal to consumers and developers: Simplicity. In part because of constraints imposed by the Web browser, online user interfaces tend to be simpler by comparison, with functional complexity being shifted to the back-end server/data center. I referred to Web 2.0 in relation to the PC.

This axiom applies even more so to cloud-connected devices, particularly sophisticated dumb phones and robust smartphones. Applications tend to be smaller and lighter-weight than their desktop counterparts but plenty functional. For the desktop, developers like Microsoft might make one big app like Office do more through iteration; on the smartphone, apps are more functionally specific. Mobile apps tend to provide singular, specific functions -- something users clearly don't mind given Apple's and, increasingly, Android Marketplace's success offering mobile applications.

Ozzie rightly sees a post-PC world on the horizon, and offers warning to Microsoft executives and direct reports. Perhaps this warning could only be received after Ozzie delivered all the aforementioned praise. He writes:

It's important that all of us do precisely what our competitors and customers will ultimately do: close our eyes and form a realistic picture of what a post-PC world might actually look like, if it were to ever truly occur. How would customers accomplish the kinds of things they do today? In what ways would it be better? In what ways would it be worse, or just different? Those who can envision a plausible future that's brighter than today will earn the opportunity to lead.

Ozzie then goes on to explain how the change might occur. He rightly discusses "continuous services" reaching "connected devices." Others have articulated similar vision better and sooner, but it's important coming from the exiting Ozzie to the Microsoft faithful. The timing is crucial to Microsoft preparing for a developer conference where Ozzie will be a figure but not a presence.

Yesterday, at Motely Fool, Tim Beyers asked "What is Microsoft?" It's a good question to ponder with Ozzie leaving and PDC 2010 coming in just a few days. Beyers presents a compelling by-the-numbers look at Microsoft divisions, which he casts in context of Ozzie's departure. He warns of what it means for Microsoft to lose someone so well respected and puts in context of laying off Don Dodge, who went on to work for Google. Beyers writes:

You know who else is widely respected among developers? Ray Ozzie...If, like Dodge, Ozzie joins Google, Apple, or another of Microsoft's rivals to help create cloud computing's next great killer app, it would clarify just how out of touch with developers the company has become.

I agree with Ozzie's importance, but given how rah-rah Microsoft is his memo, I wonder about him immediately landing at a competitor. If anything, Ozzie has shown great loyalty by praising an internally competing cloud services strategy -- and even greater tact politely warning Microsofties about the future.

I see it like this: In Dante's "Inferno," Lucifer is cast down to earth, where he chooses to rule rather than serve in heaven. Strangely, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer as God and COO Kevin Turner as faithful archangel have cast themselves down to earth, clinging to the aging Office-Windows-Server applications stack. It is Ozzie who remains in heaven -- the clouds above -- from which vantage he sees what's coming on the horizon.

I fault Ozzie for so supportingly praising the old day Microsoft's aging applications stack represents. But he shows wisdom by proclaiming the new dawn. Good luck to him wherever the wind blows his clouds.

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