The post-PC world is here (shhh, don't tell Ballmer)

In a memo, Microsoft's Ray Ozzie depicts a world without Windows -- maybe that's why he's looking for a new job?

Ray Ozzie surprised a lot of people earlier this month when he stepped down from his post as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect (and presumed heir apparent to the Mad Ballmer as CEO).

He surprised them even more by posting a 3,447-word memo to his fellow Redmondites titled "Dawn of a New Day." Judging by some reactions, you'd think he called it "Dawn of the Dead."

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After reading the memo, the first question on my mind is, did Ray Ozzie jump or was he pushed? And if the latter, did they give him one of those cool Ballmeron parachute chairs I've been reading about?

In "Dawn," Ozzie starts with the obligatory praise for how much Microsoft has managed to wake up and smell the coffee in the five years since he penned his original all-hands memo ("The Internet Services Disruption"), then launches into how his employers ended up spilling some of the scalding hot stuff all over their laps:

....the last five years has been a time of great transformation for Microsoft. At this point we're truly all in with regard to services.... Yet, for all our great progress, some of the opportunities I laid out in my memo five years ago remain elusive and are yet to be realized.

Certain of our competitors' products and their rapid advancement & refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy. Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware & software & services, and in social networking & myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction.

In other words, Microsoft fell hopelessly behind the iPhone, got its Web assets handed to it by Google and Facebook, and was totally pole-axed by the iPad.

Not that any of this is a terrible surprise. As the French say, the more things change, the more often Steve Ballmer needs to change his shirt.

Mostly, though, Ozzie wrote about a "post-PC" era where we'll swim through a world of connected devices like a goldfish in a bowl. (There's that damned castle again -- where the heck did that come from?) In this world, every device we carry or encounter is smart, can talk to each other, and can anticipate what we want without a whole lot of prompting.

Per Ozzie:

As we've begun to embrace today's incredibly powerful app-capable phones and pads into our daily lives, and as we've embraced myriad innovative services & websites, the early adopters among us have decidedly begun to move away from mentally associating our computing activities with the hardware/software artifacts of our past such as PC's, CD-installed programs, desktops, folders & files.

Instead, to cope with the inherent complexity of a world of devices, a world of websites, and a world of apps & personal data that is spread across myriad devices & websites, a simple conceptual model is taking shape that brings it all together. We're moving toward a world of 1) cloud-based continuous services that connect us all and do our bidding, and 2) appliance-like connected devices enabling us to interact with those cloud-based services.

What's missing from that vision? Icons. Mouse clicks. Hierarchical menuing systems. Inscrutable error messages. Forced restarts. Screens of death in various displeasing colors, and endlessly circular conversations with support drones in Mumbai.

In short, in Ozzie's vision there may be windows that open automatically when the temperature hits 72 degrees, but there is no Windows. And maybe that's why he's not looking at carpet swatches and Herman Miller catalogs in anticipation of easing into the Big Chair.

True, Microsoft has done some real innovating on the fringes (see Xbox, Kinnect, Courier, and Surface). And with Windows Phone 7, the company seems to finally understand just how godawful the traditional Windows interface is on a 3- or 4-inch screen. Still, I have to imagine asking Ballmer to drop Windows as the basis for everything was probably a bit like asking the Pope to drop the silly hat and allow priests to marry, or McDonalds to go 100 percent vegan. Hence Ozzie's sudden departure.

What Ozzie's saying in his memo isn't really new. You can comb archives of stories about the future going back decades and find similar stuff. But he was off a bit on one thing: That post-PC era isn't coming. It's already here. You can date its arrival to Jan. 9, 2007 -- the day Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. Everything follows from that.

PCs won't go away entirely, just like landline phones or '57 Chevys haven't entirely disappeared. They'll be more like toasters -- nice to have when you need a warm bagel, but not essential to our digital existence.

And if Microsoft is no longer a part of that world, that's OK by me. I think we've all suffered enough.

Is Ozzie right and Ballmer wrong? E-mail me:

This story, "The post-PC world is here (shhh, don't tell Ballmer)" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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