Ray Ozzie's leaving Microsoft: What took him so long?

While the mainstream press has made much of the 'surprise' departure of Microsoft's chief software architect, I can't help but wonder why Ozzie waited this long

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.

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