Ray in Charge

With my family visiting the in-laws in Charleston, I'm alone here with dog, 3 cats, and 3 (I hope that's the right number) fish. On Friday I got up late and went down to Podshow for the Fubar Friday company get-together.
Written by Steve Gillmor, Contributor

With my family visiting the in-laws in Charleston, I'm alone here with dog, 3 cats, and 3 (I hope that's the right number) fish. On Friday I got up late and went down to Podshow for the Fubar Friday company get-together. Sitting with Adam Curry in his cubicle, he asked me what was going on with GestureBank. Implicit in the question--or at least the way he asked it--was whether anything was going on.

Several days earlier, I was floating on the edge of dreams and day-dreaming. It's a funny zone, where you can literally reach out and touch the ideas and massage them, before waking fully up dissipates them. Once engaged, another rare opportunity presents itself: To let the ideas play themselves out, without being forced to respond to email or kid shit, or any of a million subtle interruptions that we are trying to triage the rest of the time. So, floating back and forth into dreams and out to nurturing the ideas, I actually got somewhere on gestures and the relationship with the platform variously called Attention.

Once I realized I had something, I forced myself to relax, hoping not to break the spell. It wasn't easy, since I was excited by the discovery. Yet I knew that some ideas that seem profound in the perfect world of dreams fall apart in the sunlight. I compromised, letting myself go back under one or two more times, playing with the ideas and watching where the sidetracks took them, and finally brought myself up when I began to feel I'd filled the container too full to recall. Immediately I sat up and, not finding a pen, sent myself a quick note on the Blackberry. While I didn't get it all, I got enough to represent the feeling. Then I went back to sleep.

Waking about an hour later, I noticed the red light blinking on my Blackberry. Figuring that it was just my email to myself I lay in bed for a while trying to see if I could remember what I'd come up with without looking at the note. As I suspected, it had largely vanished. Finally I looked, only to discover the signal was actually two emails, one from Frank Shaw of Waggener Edstrom, and the other from Ray Ozzie's communications director Richard Eckel. Luckily I had just enough time to dial into the press conference where Bill Gates announced his plan to downsize Microsoft and supersize his and his wife's Foundation. Frank and Richard were responding to my column of 12 days earlier suggesting much of what was now transpiring.

Watching Gates and Ballmer grapple with their and Microsoft's mortality was compelling watching, and more so when Frank sent me a link to a Channel 9 video where Bill looked somewhat more emotional and even regretful. Much is now being made of the doubt that Bill is really letting go, but my sense is that Bill will always act according to his best guess of what it will take to accomplish his goals, and his goals clearly have widened beyond the Microsoft silo.

Certainly I was proud to have anticipated this event, and I hope to take advantage of it in marshalling the momentum of the Gillmor Gang in related areas such as conferences and other technology businesses. As Dana Gardner has noted several times on the show, we have been remarkably ahead of the common wisdom in understanding the profound shifts that are taking place, in no small measure due not just to the individual strengths of the group and its contributors but the interaction and crucible that the Gang generates and feeds off of. And underpinning it all, the living breathing network of attention and gestures.

I don't pretend to think that my Memo to Bill precipitated his decision last week, but regardless of its impact it was meant as a gesture of support for doing the right thing. And in perhaps an even more strategic way, for Ray Ozzie to do the right thing. To be blunt, the first thing Ray needs to do is seize control of the company alongside Steve Ballmer, not as a greater of equals with Craig Mundie. Mundie should be positioned as an heir to Ballmer, if that is what is intended. But for Ray to step up to the challenge and opportunity that is Microsoft, he needs what he already effectively has, a backbone of steel that rivals Bill's. Say what you will about Bill's aggressive take-no-prisoners visage, he was the right man at the right time for the job. He wouldn't have worked his way out of this job if he weren't the ultimate tough customer. I'm counting on that in his new job. We all should.

Ray's steel is of a different caliber: He has a graceful kindness that we all can feel, and a cautious streak that has served him well in the Gerstner years and to some extent at Groove. But when he sees an opening for something that will advance his vision, he acts, regardless and in fact because of the obstacles he faces in getting there. When he saw the need for harnessing XML as the data store for the network architecture, he and his Groove cofounders reluctantly but persistently rolled their own. Not knowing the details of the Groove/Office integration plans, I would bet that that infrastructure is now largely abandoned, replaced by the WinFX fundamentals Ray praised so highly when Longhorn first surfaced and had not a little impact in guiding with his Groove precepts.

In effect then, Ray has already been operating as Chief Software Architect for a number of years, working by influence and under cover of a startup, albeit a startup with the patron of all patrons. In that context, the transition is largely now one of ratification of an already existing relationship. The Live efforts and their correspondingly greater visibility in the horse race mentality of the tech media community notwithstanding, the real consolidation is all about the rich client/server architecture, or as Ray puts it, the client/server/services architecture. Potentially, there is the same kind of synergy and monopoly power (in the good sense of that word if you'll allow me--you know like good disruptive works) in this intersection that famously occured first with Visual Basic.

But note that I add the word "rich" to client/server/services for a political reason, annd that is that rich is a code word for Microsoft hegemony, used by the guy who I labelled a pinhead on Pinhead Gang. To reiterate, the notion that users want rich is like saying that we want fries with everything. Sure I want rich services; I'd like autospellcheck in Wordpress PLEASE so I can not have to wonder whether labelled has one or two l's. But ask me if I would rather have to load Word to read a document or have all the relevant features I want loaded on demand just like the way Word works, only from a net or workgroup cache when needed? So that I can access the services I want from the devices I want when I want them, not sitting around in memory. Right now I'm running five tabs of Firefox, an ftp program, Audacity, iTunes, AIM, Skype, and Finder. Fire up Word? No thanks, when I do that, Firefox and Gmail and Rojo start slowing down.

It's like having a billion dollars and the only thing you get for that is having to worry about people suing your ass to get some of it. I've got a pretty nice HDTV set but where I live I have to jump through hoops to get live HDTV on local channels and besides I am usually not watching TV but listening to it anyway as I hack my way through my inforouter. I'm sure Scoble is right that the mass audience will move to HDTV (not as quickly as he thinks) but my quality of life is increasingly improved by things that are LESS rather than more. I LIKE the lightweight life of Firefox and less noise, more signal. I LOVE it when Gmail sniffs my email and adds a link to loading a GCal window and a map and ... Sure, it's pathetic at the moment in how it sniffs the potential appointment, and I keep having to tell Gmap where I'm starting from. But it's heading in the right direction, and I have zero reason to bolt.

That's a powerful meme, Ray, and one that I hope you won't resist. Entropy has been on Microsoft's side for a long time, long enough to convince people like Nick Carr that inevitably is its own reward. Yet here I am, one huge fan of all things Microsoft for as long as I can remember, playing Find the Hairball and win a prize. OneNote: great tool for the great Tablet, MIA on the Mac, tied to the Word kernel instead of the RSS center. Gadgets: tied to Windows and maybe the Net, instead of the Widget center and its RSS transport. Sharepoint? What was that great feed I was reading on a Sharepoint blog? Oh yes, nothing.

In a nutshell, driving toward rich feels more like a death sentence than an empowering lightness of being. No one knows better than me that there's no free lunch (except at a Salesforce event) but where does it say that we like being strapped down to a gurney in order to take advantage of the new workflow. Just because Microsoft is deeply engaged with IT and the enterprise doesn't mean it has entropy on its side. For me, entropy increasingly means staying on the edge of wakefullness and mining the ideas that spring from the absence of noise, flash, page views, pitches, come-ons, orders, agendas. I like the fact that Word is not prompting me with a little green line to fix the dangling list or strongly recommending I add an "and" where I don't want one.

On the other hand, I would gladly pay with my attention for a Wordpress/Gmail feature that LEARNED what I want to do with language and prompted me for common mistakes that I make and have to correct over and over again. It would also work wonders for people like Umair Haque who are incredibly intelligent but persistently undermine their text by using the word "it's" when they don't mean "it is." Here's why these ideas are important: 1. They solve problems for me that will save me time and create tremendous allegience to the people who provide them, and 2. They send signals, yes, gestures, that all things are possible in this new model of the living breathing network.

It's not that Ray doesn't understand this. It's that he hasn't signalled, yes, gestured, that he is paying attention to this fundamental characteristic of the new net. This is no easy page view Memo to Bill here, Ray. This is me saying to you, are you willing to validate the notion embodied in the AttentionTrust's four principles, namely that our data is ours to own, track, recover, profit by or gift it to others, and in general be in charge of. Note that I am not asking you as a proxy for Microsoft, but you, Ray Ozzie. You see, I had this dream the other day, and came up with a grand sort of unification of the GestureBank architecture, the open pool of anonymous metadata, and the Widget security model that Root.net and other attention clouds are working to integrate into their services. And I believe it represents an opportunity for you and Microsoft to join the community in a (good) disruptive way while preserving your natural constituencies in the enterprise and desktop spaces.

With Scoble gone, you're also now the Blogger in Chief at Microsoft. I'll be talking about my dream and Gestures at Gnomedex a week from Friday, and hope you'll join us or tune in on the webcast. Remember: You've got to be in it to win it.

Editorial standards