Goodbye, Mr PC

The departure of Ray Ozzie as chief software architect at Microsoft has left a hole in its forward planning. Will the company be able to seize the initiative?

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Goodbye, Mr PC Steve Ballmer has ruled out a replacement for CSA Ray Ozzie.
By  Imthishan Giado Published  October 27, 2010

On October 18th Ray Ozzie, a man who few would recognise, stepped down from Microsoft as its chief software architect. His parting gift however, was a memo - or should I say manifesto - that can well change the course of the entire industry.

Inside Redmond of course, Ozzie was acknowledged as Bill Gates' handpicked successor, the person who would charter the future course of the software giant in a time of great uncertainty. By no means is this an easy role - Gates himself was a ruthless businessman, but rarely a visionary for computing in the way that his perennial rival, Steve Jobs, was and still is.

Ozzie, on the other hand, had dramatic plans for a firm which was locked to its cashcow software licensing model - to push it even further into the emerging cloud space, where the PC would diminish in importance but the content and applications would become the key differentiator between vendors.  Under his stewardship, Microsoft has made some impressive achievements such as the Azure platform and the successful launch of its Bing search engine, created an online version of its popular Office suite and addressed most of its major operating system complaints with the release of Windows 7.

His note betrays the dawning realisation, however, that while Microsoft has made some headway into the application and service markets, rivals such as Google have practically galloped into the sunset, in terms of both market and mind share. When you think innovation today, you don't associate it with Microsoft products and that's partly due to the fact, as Ozzie pointed out, that the firm is tied to a paradigm which is rapidly becoming redundant: the personal computer.

Think about it. Why do you really need a computer at all? About 90% of the time I'm looking at the screen, the application on-screen is a web browser, acting as the gateway to my hosted applications. I could very easily accomplish the same tasks on any device with a large screen like a decent sized-laptop. It's only tradition that keeps me planted in an office - with a 3G connection, my job could be done virtually anywhere, using an array of web apps like Google Docs.

But that's not how Microsoft works. Ozzie talks in his memo about how complexity kills - and in the case of the PC, it has choked the very life out of innovation. Essentially, the firm is now working to maintain the artifice it built before - large, heavy apps with an array of functions that hardly anyone uses, coupled with an operating system that must cope with every configuration of hardware made stretching back to the late ‘90s. It's an impossible task to try and satisfy both power-users and the regular Joe.

In his parting shot, Ozzie called for Microsoft to rethink the very notion of the computer, that devices will one day not too far in the future become essentially disposable, as people look to able to access their digital existence from anywhere and anything. Client-server, virtual machines - these are all living artefacts of a hardware-based, tech geek culture. I've long said that the sooner we transition to this new kind of thinking, the faster that technology will evolve. To move forward, we must be willing to accept dramatic changes in the way we compute and communicate - and let go of a time when one man could define the direction of millions with a single piece of software and hardware. Integration, ubiquity and content - these are the buzzwords of tomorrow.

However, it doesn't seem that Microsoft will take this lesson to heart. As of the time of writing this column, Steve Ballmer has no plans to replace Ray Ozzie.

On a separate note, it's also goodbye for me, as this is my last month as Editor of Network Middle East. In my brief term here and in my previous work with Arabian Computer News, I've had the opportunity to watch the world of technology take a dramatic leap forward in a brave new future. I've also had the immense privilege of working with some of the finest journalists in the industry and met some truly visionary individuals from both the CIO and vendor community. From boom to bust to rebirth, IT has seen some interesting times and I was fortunate to be able to record them all.

So I'd like to thank all of you for reading my scribblings over the past three years. As I speed off into the sunset, remember that though IT may often get little respect, regard or even resources, you all bear knowledge of the real truth - that technology is the way of the future.

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