What Can Ray Ozzie Achieve in Redmond?

Opinion: The creator of Lotus Notes is now the point man for Microsoft's transformation. Is he up to the task? David Coursey wonders but has faith in a man whose work he has admired.

Am I the only one, or did anyone else feel a disconnect reading Ray Ozzies now public memo to the Microsoft executive staff? It was so bizarre reading Ozzies references to "we" and "us" for projects and events that not only did he have nothing to do with, having occurred while he was a Microsoft competitor.

Theres Ray talking about someone elses strategic initiatives and about mistakes that were "perhaps" made while he watched from the bleachers in Boston. Theres nothing wrong with this, but it does point out what an outsider he really is.

Ozzie played a major role in the Nov. 1 event where Microsofts services push was announced. It seemed really odd that one of his first topics involved waxing lyrical about the companys new advertising server technology, called adCenter, while almost poo-pooing its work aimed at making MSN Search competitive with Google.

While adCenter may be a really big deal for Microsofts future revenue stream, its not nearly as important for Microsoft users, most of whom couldnt care less how the company serves up advertising and would be happiest if the ads could just go away.

Hearing the guy who invented Lotus Notes getting excited about an ad server was just so strange. My immediate reaction, "Well, I never expected to hear Ray Ozzie talking about this." I dont think it did his reputation as a technical genius any good, either.

The advertising topic also comes up in his 5,000-word memo, where he describes "the power of the advertising-supported economic model" as one of three "tenets" that Microsoft must embrace. The other two? "The effectiveness of a new delivery and adoption model" and "The demand for compelling, integrated user experiences that just work"

Ozzies memo should be must-reading for people who care about where the software business generally, and Microsoft in particular, might be headed. Its short on specifics and long on exhortation, but theres a good amount of meaty stuff, too.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about the Ozzie memo.

Ozzie is a terribly bright guy but also a perpetual underachiever. Lotus Notes is a very important product, or at least it was. But, it didnt really change things in a big way, ultimately becoming a dead-end. His work at Groove pioneered making peer-to-peer useful but didnt attract many customers. Indeed, it was Grooves marketplace failure that led to the companys purchase by Microsoft, which is how Ozzie became one of Bill Gates top technical lieutenants.

I am not sure how the Ozzie memo, or the man himself, will be taken by the MS rank-and-file. When Bill writes a memo, as he has also done in support of the software-as-a-service push, Redmonds world changes. I cant imagine Ozzies missive has the same impact. I wonder how successful he will be if push comes to shove with the longtime Microsoft execs he now seems charged with ordering around.

While Microsoft has imported major executive talent in the past, former IBMer Mike Maples being the best example, no outsider has ever been given such a public and company-changing role as has been tasked to Ozzie. Certainly, its never happened so quickly: Microsofts purchase of Groove was only announced back in March.

Ray Ozzie has an excellent record of technological achievement which, alas, has never turned into a huge business success. In this new role at Microsoft, Ozzie is the point man for whats supposed to be a huge transformation in how products are delivered as the company finds its way through an increasingly hostile business environment.

Ozzies mission is as much business strategy as it is technology. His memo is more about the former than the latter, which is only sensible for such a broad-brush overview of the changes Microsoft faces. It demonstrates considerable business vision, even if its short on the "how-to" of Microsofts transformation.

/zimages/3/28571.gifA new Trojan attacks a recently patched Microsoft image rendering flaw. Click here to read more.

But, its important not to expect too much, too soon. While the companies already in the software-as-a-service space, particularly Salesforce.com, make much of Microsofts late arrival, we are really just at the beginning for everyone. The total revenue of all these competitors is a pittance compared to what Microsoft brings. This is the same position that Netscape was in—that of a leader more in name than dollars—when in 1995 Bill Gates declared the Internet to be Microsofts next big bet.

Had Microsoft not made that bet, its arguable that the Salesforce.coms of the world wouldnt be here to challenge Microsoft today.

Is Ray Ozzie up to the task of leading Microsofts transformation? Nobody knows, including Ozzie himself. He wont be doing it alone, but at the moment he is, even more than Bill Gates, the personification of the companys new direction.

Ive often thought that Ozzies vision could only play itself out on a really big stage. Now that he has one, it will be interesting to see if hes big enough to fill it. He has the smarts and the talent, but the task he faces—that of turning Microsoft into a services company—is as big a challenge as the company has ever faced, and success is not certain.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at david_coursey@ziffdavis.com.

/zimages/3/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for Microsoft and Windows news, views and analysis.