Preston Gralla

Ray Ozzie leaves Microsoft --- one more visionary walks out the door

October 18, 2010 6:57 PM EDT
Microsoft's Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie is leaving Microsoft, which should surprise no one at all. Ozzie is one of technology's great visionaries, but at Microsoft, he found himself unable to cut through turf wars and political in-fighting to make much of a mark.

Steve Ballmer wrote a memo to Microsoft employees about Ozzie's departure, which has been posted to the Microsoft Web site. It's filled with the usual laudatory comments, such as "Ray has played a critical role in helping us to assume the leadership position in the cloud, and positioned us well for future success."

No date was given for Ozzie's departure. He won't be replaced; there will be no Chief Software Architect at Microsoft from now on.

Ozzie has been at the forefront of many of the important computing breakthroughs in the last several decades. He worked on the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, and wrote the Lotus Symphony office suite. After that, he set off on his own, launching companies and developing Lotus Notes and Groove Virtual Office. In April, 2005, Microsoft bought his company, Groove Networks, and Ozzie was named Microsoft's chief technical office. In June, 2006 he was promoted to chief software architect.

Even though Ozzie's background and breakthroughs before coming to Microsoft had to do with networking, collaboration, and connecting people, Microsoft fell further behind in those areas in the more than five years he's been at the company. Google has more of a stranglehold on Web search than ever. Social networking belongs to Facebook, Twitter, and others. The future of the Internet belongs to smartphones, where Apple and Google dominate.

That's through no fault of Ozzie. He clearly wanted to put collaboration and networking at the center of Microsoft's products and services, but couldn't get past people protecting their own turf, and walls that separate product lines and development teams from one another.

Windows Live Mesh was one of his pet projects. It had grand ambitions to allow people to synchronize all of their devices and PCs seamlessly. But it was always pushed to the sidelines. Eventually a similar technology, Windows Live Sync was given the name Windows Live Mesh, but it's a pale version of what Ozzie had in mind. In fact, the current Windows Live Mesh is at least partly based on technology Microsoft bought from another company, FolderShare for Windows.

The technology is barely on Microsoft's radar. For example, Office Web Apps, the Web version of Microsoft Office, doesn't include the ability to automaticaly synchronize documents on the Web with those on your PC --- something that Windows Live Sync or Windows Live Mesh could have easily done. But Microsoft didn't think it important enough to include in Office. One can only imagine what Ozzie thought of that.

Some people may think that Ozzie's leaving was sudden, but it's been rumored for a while. Last December, I wrote about rumors that he would leave, when a friend of Ozzie's Mark Anderson, author of the Strategic News Service newsletter, said he wouldn't be surprised if Ozzie soon left Microsoft. The rumored reason? An inability to fit into Microsoft's culture.

So Ozzie's departure should be no surprise at all. Microsoft had a visionary in its midst, but didn't know how to put him to use.