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It's a Shame About Ray

The real surprise about Ray Ozzie's departure from Microsoft isn't that he's leaving the high-profile post as chief software architect at Redmond, it's that it took this long to occur.

From the very beginning of Ozzie's tenure, it was clear that the Groove founder and former Lotus executive was something of a misfit in Redmond. A widely-respected technician and innovative thinker, Ozzie was responsible for a pair of game-changing software products -- Lotus Notes and Groove. Early in his career he also worked on VisiCalc with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. Ray Ozzie's fingerprints are all over the software industry, and he seemed at first glance like an excellent candidate to follow Microsoft founder Bill Gates in the role of chief software architect at the company.

Ozzie, in a word, had it. Vision. Creativity. Technical savvy. And perhaps most important, a fresh perspective.

The story Ozzie was packing with him when he arrived in Redmond seemed tailor made to the times. Ozzie was pitching services and openness at a time when Microsoft was still very much struggling to decide what it wanted to be on the Internet-enabled landscape. In May 2007, Ozzie was talking Windows Live and open services, even as Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith was lashing out at Linux providers for infringing on 235 Microsoft patents.

A lot has changed since that moment, and I have no doubt that Ray Ozzie is part of the reason for that. Microsoft's Interoperability Pledge, made in February 2008, heralded a strategic change in Microsoft's approach to the market. Specifications and APIs were published, source code was released, and large swaths of IP were open sourced. At the same time, Microsoft VP Scott Guthrie was throwing open the shutters in the Developer Division, creating an organization that would ultimately do things like publish the ASP.NET MVC source code and adopt jQuery. These were huge, strategic changes in Microsoft's philosophical approach to the market, and Ozzie certainly played a role in them.

Yet, Ozzie never seemed comfortable in his role as chief software architect. A reticent speaker, Ozzie's public keynote appearances were few and far between. By summer 2007, the rumblings about Ozzie's lack of visible production were picking up. I wrote a Frameworks column, Prague Spring, in the August 1 issue of Redmond Developer News that questioned Ozzie's impact at Microsoft. Two years later, I found myself surprised at Ozzie's marginalized keynote around Windows Azure (Ray Ozzie as Pitchman) at the Microsoft Professional Developers Conference 2009.

Other issues cropped up. The Live group at Microsoft stumbled under a series of departures and shakeups, and workable products and technology were slow to emerge from the group. And it became clear that Ozzie would simply not emerge as the visible champion for innovation that many Microsoft watchers hoped for. As Andrew Brust notes in his blog today, it was Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and not Ozzie, who gave the speech in March at the University of Washington that announced Microsoft's strategic commitment to the cloud.

So Ray Ozzie is gone. And according to Ballmer, no one is going to replace him in the role of chief software architect. There is real danger in that approach for Microsoft, given the company's famous history of working against itself. In the past few months alone, we've seen big projects like the Kin smartphone and Olso modeling initiative killed outright. And Microsoft continues to support multiple, competing technologies in areas like sync and of course the C# and VB programming languages.

Microsoft may have decided it doesn't need a chief software architect to orchestrate its vision, but I'm not so sure. The problem is, if Ray Ozzie wasn't up to the task of corralling and articulating Microsoft's expansive vision, who is?

Who do you think could step up and serve as Microsoft's chief software architect? Or do you think Microsoft can do well enough without? Let me know in the comments section below.

Posted by Michael Desmond on 10/19/2010

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