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Behind The Curtain of Microsoft’s ‘Great Oz’

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By many accounts, Ray Ozzie stepped into some big shoes just over a year ago when he took over Bill Gates’ day-to-day role as Microsoft’s chief software architect (CSA).

What made Gates think he was and is up to the job? Plenty, including Ozzie’s own innovative footprints going back over twenty years that still influence the tech industry.

But is that pedigree enough to help lead Microsoft into the next era of software?

Ozzie is well known as the father of Lotus Notes in the early 1980s, the first -– and some would argue still the pre-eminent -– groupware/collaboration application.

Ray Ozzie

Ray Ozzie.

Source: Microsoft

These days, Notes, which just witnessed the release of Version 8, is owned by Microsoft’s arch-competitor IBM. But it’s Ozzie’s vision in that product that many industry analysts say he has to bring to bear at Microsoft.

Peter O’Kelly, now research director at analyst firm the Burton Group, worked for Ozzie at both Lotus and later at Groove Networks, the collaboration-focused start-up that Microsoft acquired in 1995.

“One of his defining factors is that Ray has a penchant for seeing five years or more into the future,” O’Kelly told “If you go back to 1984 and say the future is going to be about Notes, people would have thought you were crazy.”

Others might have thought the idea of Ozzie’s and Gates’ management styles meshing was crazy, as well. On the surface, Ozzie’s style seems 180-degrees out of Gates’ infamous “prove that I’m wrong or get out of my face” reputation. Ozzie has always been known, both personally and professionally, for his patience, his penchant toward egalitarianism and his openness to others’ ideas and input.

But what makes him seem the best possible replacement for Gates as Microsoft’s technological compass, say colleagues, is his stiletto-sharp intellect –- something even Gates has admired over the more than 20 years that the two have been acquainted.

“I’ve never been able to imagine a Microsoft without Bill Gates, but Ray would be the only logical candidate for the fierceness of his vision,” Steve Gillmor, industry observer, blogger and gadfly, told

The ‘Platform Approach’ Backstory

Ray Ozzie was born on November 20, 1955, and was raised in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, according to a profile of him in the 1986 book, “Programmers at Work.”

He graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1979. While there, he worked on an educational mainframe system dubbed Plato, which had many of the features that would later come to define groupware applications. These included “online forums and message boards, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer games,” according to a site dedicated to the Plato system.

Back then, one of the Plato’s system utilities -– an online discussion tool -– was named “Notes.”

After college, Ozzie worked for Jonathan Sachs at Data General, a Massachusetts-based large-scale computer manufacturer. (Sachs would later, along with Mitch Kapor, found Lotus Development Corp.)

In 1981, Software Arts founders Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston — the creators of the first electronic spreadsheet program for desktop computers, called VisiCalc — hired Ozzie. Arguably the first so-called “killer app,” VisiCalc gave business users a compelling reason to own PCs.

While there, Ozzie worked on building a software platform meant to let VisiCalc run on different operating systems. This “platform approach” would be a long-running theme in his career.

In 1982, Ozzie developed the functional specifications for what would later become Lotus Notes, with the plan of starting his own company, according to a work history posted by Ozzie on an old old MSN Spaces blog. In it, he credits his work on Plato as one of the inspirations for Notes. At the end of that entry he adds, perfunctorily, “Failed to obtain funding.”

A year later, Kapor and Sachs lured Ozzie away from Software Arts to work on Lotus Symphony. Their company, Lotus Development, had struck gold with an IBM PC-compatible electronic spreadsheet named Lotus 1-2-3, and it quickly dominated the burgeoning business applications market. Lotus 1-2-3 became the killer app for the pre-Windows PC.

Computers of the day couldn’t easily switch between one standalone application and another – you had to close the app you were using before you could start another. Symphony got around that by providing a suite of related business products -– spreadsheet, word processor, database, graphing tool, and dialup communications -– all in a single, integrated app.

In 1984, Ozzie left Lotus and founded Iris Associates in order to develop Notes. When it shipped in 1989, it was sold by Lotus as Lotus Notes. Lotus eventually acquired Iris Associates in 1994, and was in turn bought out by IBM in 1995.

“It was so revolutionary that it changed everything,” Michael Gould, senior analyst at Forrester Research, told “Notes forced people to wake up to a whole new way of working.”

Ozzie subsequently started Groove Networks in 1997, and developed Groove, a messaging and collaboration client based on a peer-to-peer architecture instead of Notes’ more centralized model. It was also an early product to use XML, one of Gates’ passions.

Along the way, Ozzie distinguished himself as a strong and compassionate manager, smart executive, brilliant product designer, and a programmer’s programmer.

“[What stands out about Ozzie is] his ability to be open to new ideas,” Frankston told “If anybody can [succeed as Microsoft’s chief software architect] he can, because he’s able to look at the larger issues.”

Even before he got the CSA’s job, Ozzie seemed to be trying to do just that.

Next page: Memogate Revisited

Memogate Revisited

Roughly six months after his arrival at Microsoft, Ozzie sent out a lengthy memo detailing how the company needed and needs to quickly migrate to a “software plus services” business model in order to survive.

Ozzie’s October 2005 memo became a clarion call. And Gates showed his support for Ozzie’s views by writing an accompanying memo to the entire senior leadership team.

While it was politic, Ozzie’s “Internet Services Disruption” memo faulted areas where the company has stumbled. He took his new Microsoft brethren to task for being beaten to the punch by Adobe’s Portable Document Format while its XML based formats in what is now Office 2007 were not more influential.

“For all its tremendous innovation and its embracing of HTML and XML, Office is not yet the source of key Web data formats –- surely not to the level of PDF,” Ozzie noted in the memo.

He also criticized senior managers for missing Skype’s Voice over IP (VoIP) success. And he was critical that, even though Microsoft had played a significant role in developing and promoting the AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) technologies (define), it was not a leader in their use.

Perhaps worst of all: “We knew search would be important, but through Google’s focus they’ve gained a tremendously strong position,” Ozzie’s memo said.

Since then, Microsoft has focused increasingly on rolling out more Live online services and in meeting Google head on in the search realm. In April, the company also introduced the Silverlight media streaming technology, which is as notable for its embrace of other operating systems and browsers as it is for its developer platform orientation.

The Melding of an Architect in Chief

You might expect that either Ozzie or Gates might have antibodies to each other. But, in fact, the two have much in common, especially when it comes to “fat clients.” That affinity is easily visible in Ozzie’s choice of words: “software plus services” instead of “software as a service.”

“From my viewpoint, every one of our software offerings is either a socket for a new attached service that connects to that software offering, or an upgrade or up-sell opportunity to extend a product’s value proposition up to the Web and, potentially, through mobile devices,” Ozzie told analysts gathered for the company’s annual financial analysts meeting in late July.

“Services is going to be a critical aspect of all of our offerings, from Windows and Office on the client to Exchange and SharePoint and [the Microsoft] Dynamics [business applications] and other things on the server, and in order to gain leverage across all of our offerings, we’re taking a platform approach to services, giving each of our products the common benefits of cost, speed, scale, and monetization that a platform approach offers,” he added.

At least, given the view from the outside, Ozzie appears to be making headway.

“I’d have to say Ozzie has changed Microsoft more than Microsoft has changed Ozzie,” Dwight Davis, vice president of researcher Ovum Summit, told

Some of that is due to his people skills, according to George Moromisato, whose first job out of college was working on Notes Version 2 at Iris Associates. He later became chief software designer for Groove.

“I’ve seen many, many design sessions where Ray has been able to hold his own and push [the software engineers] to go further,” Moromisato, who is currently director of user experience for Ozzie’s personal concept development team at Microsoft, told “[Ray] conducts meetings so everyone feels they can speak up,” Moromisato added.

That’s been his style since early on, say colleagues.

“I think Ray is a ‘good person’ in terms of the ‘Don’t do evil’ thing,” said Bricklin, who is president of Software Garden, a software development firm and consultancy.

Where the Vision Meets the Sky

Ozzie is facing huge challenges with Microsoft. Much of his vision for the future will require that the company’s myriad products integrate with each other and with competitors’ lines. And many of those products will need to tie into the emerging software plus services approach.

Additionally, the company has 32 years of an operating history that can also be a burden to its change management plans.

At the top of that list of baggage is the Office productivity applications suite and its franchise. It has traditionally been one of the company’s biggest cash cows. Yet, in the face of free offerings from Google and, the company is beginning to think about the unthinkable. Microsoft recently announced it would release a free, ad supported version of its Works low-end home productivity suite. The company has not said it will do the same with Office, but the writing is on the wall, according to some industry observers.

But if the world does move to a more Web-centric view of applications, it’s better for Microsoft to obsolete Office itself than to have competitors do it, said several observers.

“Software plus services is really Ozzie’s baby, and you can really credit him for moving Microsoft off the dime when there was a lot of resistance internally to that model,” Ovum Summit’s Davis said.

This article was first published on To read the full article, click here.

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