By now you've read about Microsoft's announcement that Ray Ozzie is headed out the door. Bill Gates' designated second hitter in the software design department, Ray has been a driving force -- arguably the driving force -- in Microsoft's long, labored march to the cloud.
Looked at from the outside, Ray's departure might appear sudden or unexpected. But those of us who have watched his frustration build over the years can't help but wonder what took him this long.
I wrote yesterday about the role of the designer at Apple and how the veneration afforded designers -- who sit on the right hand of Steve -- may well be the primary force driving Apple's ongoing success.
Now comes word that Microsoft's head designer Ray Ozzie -- officially Chief Software Architect, de facto the highest-level designer in the company, with a purview outside the tired Windows/Office megalith -- has decided to take a break.
Nobody knows exactly why he's going, maybe not even Ozzie, but looking at Microsoft's slothlike progress in cloud computing and newly rediscovered faith in Windows and Office, it's easy to see a few contributing factors.
Ray Ozzie first appeared on my radar screen when I heard about this amazing guy who designed Lotus Notes. If you never used Notes, count yourself lucky. I've rarely seen anything that so aptly fills the description, "Designed by geniuses. Implemented by idiots." The Notes architecture completely revolutionized the way businesses communicated. But the Notes product had so many enormously frustrating gaps and gaffes that people in the trenches hated it. IBM bought Lotus primarily for Notes -- and look where it's gone.
Ozzie went on to form Groove. Microsoft bought it -- and him -- in 2005, and Ozzie took on Bill's software design mantle in 2006. Groove was slapped onto the side of Office, and ultimately morphed into SharePoint Services, which hasn't really emerged from the Office shadow.
Ozzie's biggest contribution to Microsoft's future direction has to be the Oct. 28, 2006, memo titled "The Internet Services Disruption." An insightful blueprint for the future, Microsoft stood up, took notice, but hasn't followed through very well.
He took on several new projects at Microsoft, but the most visible was Azure. In 2008, at the Professional Developer's Conference, he described Azure as a cloud-based operating system complete with its own application programming interface. A year later, Azure was a tiny shadow of its former self. At the end of December 2009, Microsoft went through another reorg, pulling the Azure project out from under Ozzie's purview. A product called Azure has been released, but the feature set doesn't even begin to match the lofty initial design.
There's that word again.
Ozzie was also directly involved in designing and rolling out Live Mesh, a handful of groundbreaking technologies that help weave applications and data together in the cloud. When it finally hit the ground, Windows Live Sync, er, Mesh, lost several key features from its earlier implementation. I talked about Live Mesh's less-than-stellar incarnation as Windows Live Mesh last month.
Then there was Live Labs. In January 2006, with much fanfare, Microsoft launched Live Labs for "rapidly developing and deploying Internet technologies" in direct competition with Google. It was one of Ozzie's pet projects, taking on Google mano a mano in the cloud. Two weeks ago, Microsoft disbanded Live Labs, it moved the team over to the Bing group, and the leader of Live Labs left.
A year ago Ozzie founded Future Social Experiences (Fuse) Labs. Tasked with "releasing new applications and services that address the rich, real-time, and social nature of our everyday lives," Fuse Labs is now best known for the privacy-challenged application called docs.com that runs on Facebook. How the mighty have fallen.
Then there's the personality thing. Ozzie is anything but a Ballmer toadie. I was -- and still am -- amazed at the difference in perception and vision displayed at the D8 conference in June. Watch the full interview and you'll see: Ozzie "gets" the cloud, no question. Ballmer's grasp leaves something to be desired. (Ozzie's correcting Ballmer on stage rates as a nonpareil career-limiting move, even at his level, but I digress.)
Ozzie isn't the only frustrated genius at Microsoft. The Redmond campus is packed with 'em. But his departure marks a real turning point in Microsoft's devolution, er, evolution.
Some people see Ozzie's departure as a triumph of the old Windows/Office school over the cloud-enamored young Turks. I think there's some truth in that. But I also see it as a situation where a brilliant designer just didn't have traction in the company to bring his visions to reality. Even at Ray Ozzie's vaunted level, as a direct descendant of Bill, he couldn't pull together the teams or the resources to make his ideas real.
This article, "Ray Ozzie's leaving Microsoft: What took him so long?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog.