Ray Ozzie, Bill Gates's replacement as Microsoft's Chief Software Architect, has posted Dawn of a New Day -- his "goodbye memo" -- a bit ahead of time. First, it's dated October 28. Second, it looks forward to a "Post PC" world dominated by "continuous services and connected devices" (his emphasis). He says:
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. Each individual will interact with a fairly good number of these connected devices on a daily basis -- their phone / internet companion; their car; a shared public display in the conference room, living room, or hallway wall. Indeed some of these connected devices may even grow to bear a resemblance to today's desktop PC or clamshell laptop. But there's one key difference in tomorrow's devices: they're relatively simple and fundamentally appliance-like by design, from birth. They're instantly usable, interchangeable, and trivially replaceable without loss. But being appliance-like doesn't mean that they're not also quite capable in terms of storage; rather, it just means that storage has shifted to being more cloud-centric than device-centric. A world of content -- both personal and published -- is streamed, cached or synchronized with a world of cloud-based continuous services.
He does acknowledge that Microsoft has made progress, over the past five years, in developing to the core vision of cloud-based services that he outlined five years ago in another memo, The Internet Services Disruption. (See my earlier post, Ozzie to leave Microsoft: future cloudy.)
Today, Microsoft does have plenty of web-based services and, in Azure, a cloud offering that will initially provide incremental income to its PC client and server software businesses. It has the beginnings of a powerful system for supporting "three screens and a cloud" that potentially put it ahead of both Apple (which still insists on syncing things to its bloated desktop software) and Google (which has online applications of very variable quality, and has not been very successful on the desktop). But, of course, there is no guarantee that Microsoft will continue to develop on its strategy with the sort of pace and quality that will be needed to stay in the race.
Ozzie points out that his title, Dawn of a New Day, was the theme of the 1939 World's Fair in New York, when the Second World War was breaking out in Europe. Ozzie says:
Surrounding the event, stories were written and vividly told to help everyone envision and dream of a future of modern conveniences; superhighways & spacious suburbs; technological wonders to alleviate hardship and improve everyday life.
I'm sure all this is meant to inspire Softies to imagine and build a new future in computing rather than to make them think of Google as Nazi Germany ("Tomorrow belongs to me") with Steve Jobs as, perhaps, Benito Mussolini.
The problem is that Microsoft has never been short of vision. At the Comdex trade show in November 1999, for example, it was pushing a strategy of cloud computing with easy-to-use web-based companion computers. In a Q&A: Microsoft Unveils a New Way to Access the Web, Jon DeVaan, senior vice president of Microsoft's Consumer and Commerce Group, explained:
Web companions are a new breed of Internet-access device, designed for people who want a simple way to surf the Web and communicate with others. MSN-based Web Companions are a line of devices within this product category that provides the same rich Internet experience a PC provides, but with more fun built in-by way of a more intuitive user interface, easier-to-find controls and simpler steps to Internet access. Because MSN-based Web Companions are powered by the Microsoft Windows CE operating system, they offer user-friendly features such as Instant-On and a single-screen user interface.
DeVaan went on to explain that:
MSN-based Web Companions help people make the most of their time on the Web. Because of their small, lightweight form factors, these devices can be used in any room of the house for such tasks as online bill paying, staying in touch by email, or electronic shopping. Moreover, this device will not become obsolete; users will always experience the best Internet technology as the devices are updated via the Web automatically.
These devices included ultralight notebooks, eventually including the Psion Netbook, and tablets. Also, in the same year, Microsoft announced its Windows Distributed interNet Architecture (Windows DNA), which led to the .NET strategy in 2000. The company said: "Microsoft .NET (pronounced dot net) will provide easier, more personalized, and more productive Internet experiences by harnessing constellations of smart devices and Web sites with advanced software through Internet protocols and formats." When Ozzie talks of devices from "the remotely diagnosed elevator, to the sensors on our highways", he's not telling Microsoft anything it didn't know a dozen years ago.
Microsoft's real problem isn't its vision, but its execution.
Take smartphones, for example, Microsoft saw the need to develop an operating system for consumer electronics devices such as handheld organisers (Pocket PCs), games consoles (Sega Dreamcast), WebTV, smartphones (Windows Mobile), cars (Windows Automotive), sewing machines and similar products -- they're all based on Windows CE -- and with Sendo, it had a prototype Stinger smartphone running in 2000. This was before Apple launched the iPod, let alone the iPhone. Did this vision enable Windows Mobile to dominate the smartphone market? No answer required.
There are some signs that Microsoft is improving its execution. The new Office 2007/2010 and Windows Phone 7 interfaces are extremely innovative, for example. The Xbox Live and the new Windows Live services are generally as good as and sometimes better than anything else available. Windows 7 is an outstanding operating system, and is on track to take over the market. Bing still has lots of problems but it can deliver more useful results than Google (though not often enough to replace it as my home page). In all these areas, Microsoft 2010 is delivering dramatic improvements over Microsoft 2005, but it has a very long way to go.
There's not much point in telling Microsoft to have a vision that's more like Google's, because Microsoft had that vision long before Google did. What Microsoft really needs is a way to make its development processes as rapid, agile, flexible and productive as Google's -- though ideally without producing as many half-baked products. That would be worth a lot more than a new dawn: it would be a new decade.