Ray Ozzie: Painting a cloudy future for Microsoft?

Microsoft may be larger in Ozzie's rearview mirror than it actually was and larger in his forward vision than it will be

It is not all that uncommon for a departing executive to let the company know how important he was to the company's success or to provide unsolicited advice on where the company should go after he has gone.  Microsoft's Ray Ozzie is the latest executive to undertake this ritual. 

It is not all that uncommon for a departing executive to let the company know how important he was to the company's success or to provide unsolicited advice on where the company should go after he has gone.  Microsoft's Ray Ozzie is the latest executive to undertake this ritual.  

Ozzie, about to step down as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect, recently sent a memo addressed to Microsoft's "Executive Staff" and to Ozzie's "direct reports," and published it to the world on his blog. As is commonly the case, the view in Ozzie's rear view mirror may not quite accurately reflect reality and his view of the future pretends that Microsoft has more control of what lies ahead than it is likely to actually have.

Ozzie's "Dawn of a New Day" memo comes five years after the "The Internet Services Disruption memo he wrote shortly after settling into Microsoft.  Ozzie, not unreasonably, describes that earlier memo, along with "a few decks and discussions," as being transformational for Microsoft, and maybe less unreasonably, for the industry.  That memo did seem to help Microsoft understand that enterprise and personal computer software was not the end game in an Internet-enabled world.  Microsoft's reaction to this understanding is still evolving but will continue to be an important part of what Microsoft will be.

Ozzie's new memo plants another signpost in Microsoft's path pointing in yet another direction.  In it, Ozzie asks Microsoft to imagine a post-PC world.  He describes the PC as a collection of "specific familiar artifacts such as a 'computer', the 'program' that's installed on a computer, and the 'files' that are stored on that computer's 'desktop'."  He then goes on to say that "for a majority of users, the PC is largely indistinguishable even from the 'browser' or 'Internet'."  These two statements are in conflict -- if the user just sees a browser or the Internet as a PC then there are no programs, files, etc.

Seems to me that Ozzie is asking Microsoft to imagine a future that is already here, and in some cases, one that has been for quite a while.

Ozzie asks Microsoft to imagine "connected devices" using "continuous services".  The Internet passed 100 million connected devices close to 10 years ago and is now close to eight times that many.  An increasingly larger percentage are "always on" -- connected 100% of the time.  With the advent of the smartphone, particularly the post iPhone smartphones, increasingly the devices are also mobile.  These devices have been, to use Ozzie's term, "constantly computing" for quite a while now.

Applications such as e-mail, instant messaging, location-based services are always on and always computing. 

Ozzie says that one difference with the connected devices of tomorrow is that they are appliance-like and relatively simple.  There is nothing particularly new about these concepts either  -- the term "Internet of things" was coined more than a decade ago to describe the same idea.

But it is far from clear that the general connected device of the future will be all that "small", at least compared to PCs of just a few years ago.  The baseline iPhone 4 comes with a processor and storage that compares favorably to the processor in a similarly priced desktop of less than a decade ago.  There is no reason to think that devices such as  phones will get dumber as we go forward.  The assumption that everything will be in the cloud may not be the most accurate part of this memo.

The above is not to say that Ozzie's memo is not important.  It is a wake-up call for a company that has had a very hard time being ahead of the pack in the computing biz for as long as the majority of Internet users can remember.  A Microsoft that listens to the message in this memo and acts on it may not be the dominant player in the evolution of networking or computing but at least it will be a player, something that will not be the case if the company does not.

Disclaimer: Harvard gets and creates lots of memos, some are worth considering but I know of no university review of Mr. Ozzie's, so the above is my own.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.