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Microsoft vision chief sees world without Microsoft PCs

Ozzie's change-or-die message

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Comment Is Microsoft a dying consumer brand? That's the question CNN's Money has posed.

Well, it's one thing for journalists, bloggers, and Silicon Valley–watchers to write off the company, as they frequently and easily do in this dawning era of tablets, Androids, and cloud services — but what about when Cassandra is your star software architect and visionary-in-chief?

Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie, whose resignation was suddenly and surprisingly announced by chief executive Steve Ballmer last week, has signed off by saying that to cheat death, Microsoft must escape Windows on the PC, and adapt to the new world order.

Ozzie, who joined in 2005 and became chief software architect in 2006, is credited — rightly or wrongly — with helping Microsoft make its move to online services with Windows Azure that followed his 2005 memo on Internet Services Disruption.

His words don't help when you're pinning you hopes on a mobile rebirth and about to host your great Professional Developers Conference, an event where — in years past — Microsoft laid out such grand visions as Windows Vista (OK, that didn't go so well) and its Windows Azure cloud.

Five years in, Ozzie is blunt about what needs to be done, and that the work of changing Microsoft is not finished.

"The past five years have been breathtaking. But the next five years will bring about yet another inflection point — a transformation that will once again yield unprecedented opportunities for our company," he wrote in a post to his personal blog.

Ozzie says what has been obvious to outsiders for a years: Microsoft has been too slow — I'd say complacent — and got caught napping on mobile. "Certain of our competitors' products and their rapid advancement and refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy," he said.

"Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware and software and services, and in social networking and myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction."

He mentioned no names, but he didn't need to. We're talking Apple and Android.

So why is Ozzie leaving with a job half-done? We don't know.

Sure, he has resigned — but resignation seems to be the fashionable form of corporate seppuku for Microsoft brass these days, a way to leave while retaining their personal honor and that of Microsoft. The head of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division Robbie Bach announced his resignation in May at the age of 46, just as Windows Phone's market share fell and the disastrous Windows KIN was killed

Was Ozzie pushed from his job or did he become a victim of corporate politics? (Mary-Jo Foley talks here of rivalry between Ozzie and Windows group president Steven Sinofsky.) Or was Microsoft's structure and culture too much for one individual to overcome when trying to make the kinds of sweeping and transformational changes Ozzie envisioned in his 2005 memo?

As a Microsoft insider for five years and chief software architect for four, Ozzie is certainly well qualified to know the state of Microsoft's health and what's behind it. He employed a few key phrases and sound bites in his long blog post to say what he really felt.

Namely, that Microsoft has become a victim of its own success and needs to move beyond the PC that made its name, and that Microsoft has added more and more features to Windows based on requests, focus group, and internal meetings about meetings, features that have made Windows complicated and frustrating to use, manage, test, and secure. "Complexity kills" Ozzie said bluntly.

Slapping a new web front-end on Office — Office Web Apps — and/or rebranding hosted SharePoint — formerly Business Online Suite now Office 360 — isn't going to solve this. Boasting about record sales of Windows 7 is irrelevant — it's like telling everybody you've just placed more deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Grab a seat, people!

"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," according to Ozzie.

"But today, as I wrote five years ago, 'Just as in the past, we must reflect upon what's going on around us, and reflect upon our strengths, weaknesses and industry leadership responsibilities, and respond. As much as ever, it's clear that if we fail to do so, our business as we know it is at risk.'"

Ozzie goes on to hit Microsoft where it hurts, in the thing that made it great: Windows.

With the 25th anniversary of Windows 1.0 coming next month, Ozzie told Microsoft to get over its pride in Windows and to move on — most consumers have, and Microsoft's adherence to the past is holding the company back. "For the majority of users, the PC is largely indistinguishable even from the 'browser' or 'internet'," Ozzie said.

Ozzie goes on to "imagine a 'post-PC world'" — that's the opposite of Microsoft's view, where the PC fits in to a world of phones, devices, and TVs all running Windows. These will be heretical words to Microsoft's ears. Ronald Reagan also "imagined" a world — a world without the Berlin Wall. That world came to pass. Ozzie's imaginings could, too.

Microsoft is, of course, bound to see the world as a PC-centric thing because of its history — and, oh yeah, an annual $62bn revenue from the Windows franchise. Ozzie tells Microsoft: "Tomorrow's experiences will be inherently transmedia and trans-device."

How does Microsoft change? It's here Ozzie that becomes oblique, but it's clear he's got a problem either with the politics or the inertia and process of Microsoft.

According to Ozzie, change came come — but real change must come from within. It's like telling somebody with a taste for destructive personal relationships they can only break the cycle by recognizing they've got a problem. Here's Ozzie:

The one irrefutable truth is that in any large organization, any transformation that is to "stick" must emerge from within. Those on the outside can strongly influence, particularly with their wallets. Those above are responsible for developing and articulating a compelling vision, eliminating obstacles, prioritizing resources, and generally setting the stage with a principled approach.

But the power and responsibility to truly effect transformation exists in no small part at the edge. Within those who, led or inspired, feel personally and collectively motivated to make; to act; to do.

In taking the time to read this, most likely it's you.

So is Microsoft dying? Ozzie's post should be taken by Microsoft with the same readiness as was his 2005 discussion on what Microsoft must do to change — only with slightly more urgency, now that he's on the outside and not being paid to make those changes happen. ®

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