Microsoft could find itself in a dire position unless it corrects course, seems to be one of the messages in departing Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie's much-publicized Oct. 28 blog posting. The solution, he wrote, will involve "embracing that which is technologically inevitable"-a future of varied devices connected to the cloud.
Across the blogosphere, Ozzie's posting has sparked discussion over why he chose to leave Microsoft at such a critical inflection point. Several high-ranked executives have departed Redmond over the past year, either in pursuit of better opportunities (e.g., Microsoft Business Division President Stephen Elop taking the CEO reins at Nokia) or likely in the wake of internal strife (e.g., Entertainment & Devices Division President Robbie Bach's retirement following the Kin phones debacle). But Ozzie falls into neither of those clear-cut categories, making his decision all the more mysterious to outsiders.
In his blog posting, Ozzie hints at Microsoft's falling behind in key areas, particularly smartphones.
"Certain of our competitors' products and their rapid advancement and refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy," he wrote. "Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in seamless fusion of hardware and software and services, and in social networking and myriad new forms of Internet-centric social interaction."
Translation: Windows Phone 7 needs to be a hit, or else Google Android and the Apple iPhone will continue to dominate the consumer mobile space.
Ozzie's view then shifts from mobility to the emerging cloud-based paradigm, which also threatens many businesses' current models.
"Organizations worldwide, in every industry, are now stepping back and re-thinking the basics; questioning their most fundamental structural tenets," Ozzie added. "Doing so is necessary for their long-term growth and survival. And our own industry is no exception, where we must question our most fundamental assumptions about infrastructure and apps."
Translation: The "PC-centric/server-centric" paradigm, which allowed Microsoft to become one of the dominant tech companies of its era, is in decline. Before its inevitable fall into the trash can of tech history, however, that paradigm begat users with an enormously complex-and confusing-array of interlocking products.
"Success begets product requirements. And 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," Ozzie wrote. "Complexity kills." It is also, he adds a few paragraphs later, "inescapable" as products mature.
"But as 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." At that point, "Fragility can grow to constrain agility. Some deep architectural strengths can before irrelevant-or worse, become hindrances."
Ozzie seems to be asking his soon-to-be-former company, whose fortunes continue in large part to ride on a famously complex operating system, how it will adapt to a paradigm that embraces simplicity. In his estimation, the future will be one of "continuous services" connected via the cloud to "connected devices" available in "a breathtaking number of shapes and sizes, tuned for a broad variety of communications, creation and consumption tasks."
Translation: Microsoft needs to adapt as well, or risk being left behind. Ozzie's blog posting, however, fails to address directly how the company's flagship products-i.e., Windows-will need to change in order to meet this future.