'Complexity kills': Can Microsoft, and all of IT, simplify?

Ray Ozzie's riff on the post-PC world and how complexity kills highlight a technology and management issue for Microsoft---as well as enterprise IT.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's former chief architect, has penned another visionary memo about the post-PC world where he talks about the post-PC world, complexity and how the software giant can adapt to it.

Ozzie arrived at Microsoft with big ideas that were largely implemented---Azure, Office 365, SharePoint etc.---but he couldn't communicate them well generally speaking. His exit blog post talks about how Microsoft has to prepare for a post-PC world.

Last week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer played down Ozzie's departure somewhat. He said Ozzie's big thinking is now Microsoft's strategy. Microsoft is all in on the cloud and the services that go with it. Later, however, Ballmer noted that Windows 8 could be the company's riskiest product. Sounds like a bit of a post-PC world worry to me.

More: Microsoft's outgoing Chief Software Architect on the 'post-PC world'

Here's the pertinent part of Ozzie's post:

But as the PC client and PC-based server have grown from their simple roots over the past 25 years, the PC-centric / server-centric model has accreted simply immense complexity.  This is a direct by-product of the PC’s success: how broad and diverse the PC’s ecosystem has become; how complex it’s become to manage the acquisition & lifecycle of our hardware, software, and data artifacts.  It’s undeniable that some form of this complexity is readily apparent to most all our customers:  your neighbors; any small business owner; the ‘tech’ head of household; enterprise IT.

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.

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.

And as time goes on and as software products mature – even with the best of intent – complexity is inescapable.

That passage was notable because it's not just a tech issue. It's a management issue. Can Microsoft really become less complex? Can it develop less complex products? And what does that mean for longevity---Ozzie also noted that Microsoft has benefited from complexity. One thing is certain: Complexity is everywhere in tech. Enterprise IT projects are complex squared and many times management makes it more complex.

Ozzie's indirect comparison to Apple throughout his blog post was also notable. It just so happens that Bloomberg Businessweek did an article on former Apple CEO John Sculley and his experience being the boss of Steve Jobs. In the article, Sculley gave a history lesson of his tenure and how Jobs should have been CEO then, but wasn't. But the relevant passage from the article is this one from Sculley about Jobs:

An anecdotal story: A friend of mine was at meetings at Apple and Microsoft on the same day. And this was in the last year, so this was recently. He went into the Apple meeting (he's a vendor for Apple), and as soon as the designers walked in the room, everyone stopped talking, because the designers are the most respected people in the organization. Everyone knows the designers speak for Steve because they have direct reporting to him. It is only at Apple where design reports directly to the CEO.

Later in the day he was at Microsoft. When he went into the Microsoft meeting, everybody was talking and then the meeting starts and no designers ever walk into the room. All the technical people are sitting there trying to add their ideas of what ought to be in the design. That's a recipe for disaster.

Everyone around him knows he beats to a different drummer. He sets standards that are entirely different than any other CEO would set.

He's a minimalist and constantly reducing things to their simplest level. It's not simplistic. It's simplified. Steve is a systems designer. He simplifies complexity.

Now Jobs is one of a kind. The big question is whether Microsoft can simplify. And if you zoom out a bit you wonder if this industry beyond Jobs can simplify. You see Android splintering and becoming complex. You see legacy apps that remain in all of their complex glory. You see cloud players like Salesforce.com talking simplicity, but we all know SaaS sprawl and managing it is around the corner.

Can Microsoft eradicate complexity? Can you?

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