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

Ray Ozzie may be a lame duck at this point, as he will soon be leaving his Chief Software Architect post at Microsoft. But that hasn't stopped him from publishing an updated assessment of Microsoft's strategy and products.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Ray Ozzie may be a lame duck at this point, as he will soon be leaving his Chief Software Architect post at Microsoft. But that hasn't stopped him from publishing an updated assessment of Microsoft's strategy and products.

On October 25, Ozzie posted to his newly minted blog a memo he sent to his staff and direct reports, entitled "Dawn of a New Day." In it, Ozzie examines what Microsoft has and hasn't achieved since he joined the company five years ago and penned his "Internet Services Disruption" memo. (Thanks to Student Partner Pradeep Viswav for the pointer to the latest Ozzie memo.)

The "Dawn of a New Day" memo makes it clear -- at least to me -- that Ozzie has concerns about Windows. He doesn't state this as bluntly as I just did. (And maybe the talk I've heard about an Ozzie vs. Windows Chief Steven Sinofsky feud is coloring my opinion here.) But you wouldn't catch any other member of Microsoft's top brass wondering aloud about the rightful reigning place of PCs in the future. Microsoft's official public stance is Windows PCs are now and will stay at the center of the computing universe, no matter what kinds of new devices become popular.

In his new memo, Ozzie described the "post-PC world" he sees coming -- a world of continuous services and connected devices. He noted that early adopters have "decidedly begun to move away from mentally associating our computing activities with the hardware/software artifacts of our past such as PC’s, CD-installed programs, desktops, folders & files."

The PC client and PC-based server models have become immensely complex because of a number of factors, Ozzie argued, including how broad and diverse the PC ecosystem has become and how complex it has become to "manage the acquisition & lifecycle of our hardware, software, and data artifacts," Ozzie said.

I doubt the Windows management would state things this way, but there is some evidence they realize this as well. Microsoft has been trying to detangle the ever-growing body of Windows code via projects like MinWin, and is making noises about simplifying the acquisition of software and services via a Windows app store in Windows 8.

But will those efforts be enough and happen quickly enough? More from Ozzie's latest memo:

"It’s undeniable that some form of this (PC) 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."

He notes that there's a flip side of complexity: It also provides some gaurantee of longevity because of the interdependencies it creates. You can't just flip a switch and get rid of something that is so deeply embedded in your work and home life.

Ozzie isn't predicting the PC is going away overnight. "The PC and its ecosystem is going to keep growing, and growing, for a long time to come," he opined. But if and when the post-PC world arrives, users and vendors need to be ready for it, he said.

Connected devices in Ozzie's view, are not the PCs of today. While some ultimately may look like today's desktop PCs or laptops, they'll be more like embedded devices, optimized for varying purposes, he said.

These next-gen devices, according to Ozzie, 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," Ozzie continued. "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."

Ozzie's latest missive made it clearer, in my view, why he is leaving Microsoft. While there are some -- many, perhaps -- at the company who see things the way Ozzie does, I am doubtful that CEO Steve Ballmer and favored son Sinofsky do. Yes, Microsoft is pouring lots of marketing and development dollars into mobile and R&D, but decisions like prohibiting OEMs from preloading the more-touch-centric Windows Phone operating system on slates and tablets says to me that protecting the Windows PC fiefdom is Rule No. 1 in Redmond.

Secondly, if you look back at Ozzie's original Internet Services Disruption memo, some key changes for which he advocated haven't occured at all. Five years ago, Ozzie said that Microsoft needed to increase the tempo of delivery for both the base OS experiences and the additivie experiences and services that it delivered via its platforms division. Windows Vista was released to manufactuirng in 2006; Windows 7 in 2009. It looks like Windows 8 is on a track to hit in 2012. (However, it's looking like the Internet Explorer team may finally decouple its delivery schedule from Windows'; rumor has it the final IE 9 could be out before mid-2011.) Each Windows Live "wave" is as encumbered as Windows itself with planning, processes and procedures, making delivery anything but agile.

Ballmer recently told attendees at a Gartner conference that he considered the company's riskiest bet to be the next version of Windows. Yes, as a number of you readers have said, every version of Windows is risky because Windows is still Microsoft's biggest cash cow. There are more than a billion Windows PCs on the planet. Every new version is a "risk" to some degree.

But I can't help but wonder if the complexity in the OS itself, the PC ecosystem at large (as outlined by Ozzie) and in the competitive landscape also makes Windows 8, especially risky. Will Windows 8 really be an evolutionary release that will keep Windows PCs relevant in the post-PC new world? If so, in what way(s)?

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