As Ray Ozzie prepares to leave Microsoft, he's offering a new five-year plan for the company that eschews the current PC-centric world, just as he made his mark five years ago issuing a call to arms away from software products toward cloud computing.
In a new memo dated Oct. 28, Ozzie charges Microsoft with embracing a future that moves away from PCs toward a variety of "appliance-like" devices that are connected to "continuous services" based in the cloud.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer recently announced that Ozzie, who became chief software architect when company founder Bill Gates left to focus on his charitable foundation, would leave Microsoft. Ozzie is known for a memo that he wrote in 2005 soon after he joined the company challenging it to shift its business to a new model of advertising-supported services and software.
That memo came at a time when the rest of the technology industry had already begun its shift toward the cloud, but it was bold in that it challenged Microsoft to embrace a new business model that could threaten the company's main business of selling software. His new memo also comes at a time when the industry is already building a variety of devices like smartphones, tablets and e-readers, yet it's bold in that it acknowledges that the PC industry, which Microsoft dominates, will no longer be central to computing.
Ozzie says that over the past 25 years, the PC-centric world of computing has grown too complex. "Even when superhuman engineering and design talent is applied, there are limits to how much you can apply beautiful veneers before inherent complexity is destined to bleed through. 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," he wrote.
He implied that PC computing is reaching a moment where that complexity will constrain the ability to progress. That means it's time to imagine a post-PC world, he said. Early adopters have already moved away from the model of PCs, desktops, folders and files toward using a variety of connected devices that interact with cloud-based services, he wrote.
"Connected devices beyond the PC will increasingly come in a breathtaking number of shapes and sizes, tuned for a broad variety of communications, creation & consumption tasks," he wrote. He says although such devices will be "appliance-like," they will still be capable of storage, in the cloud.
While much of this vision may appear to already be reality, it will take much more than we have today, he wrote. "Those who build, deploy and manage today's websites understand viscerally that fielding a truly continuous service is incredibly difficult and is only achieved by the most sophisticated high-scale consumer websites. And those who build and deploy application fabrics targeting connected devices understand how challenging it can be to simply & reliably just 'sync' or 'stream'. To achieve these seemingly simple objectives will require dramatic innovation in human interface, hardware, software and services," he wrote.
In the short term, achieving this vision will involve imagining "killer apps and services and killer devices," he said. "To deliver what seems to be required e.g. an amazing level of coherence across apps, services and devices -- will require innovation in user experience, interaction model, authentication model, user data & privacy model, policy & management model, programming & application model, and so on," he wrote.
"Today's PC's, phones & pads are just the very beginning; we'll see decades to come of incredible innovation from which will emerge all sorts of 'connected companions' that we'll wear, we'll carry, we'll use on our desks & walls and the environment all around us," he wrote.
Looking back over the five years since he wrote his first memo, Ozzie said Microsoft has done well achieving some of his vision, but not all. Windows Live, Office 365, Xbox Live and Azure show good progress, he wrote.
"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," he said.
"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," he wrote.
With Ozzie preparing to leave Microsoft, it's uncertain if executives remain who will see that his new vision is executed. In announcing Ozzie's departure, Ballmer only said that he'd be around for "a while" as he transitions his work to others. Ballmer said that he doesn't intend to fill the position of chief software architect once Ozzie leaves.