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Assessing Ray Ozzie's impact at Microsoft

Ozzie did a lot to tilt Microsoft toward the cloud, but his departure raises questions over who will be responsible for the company's next big technological shift.

Bringing change to Microsoft has been likened to getting an ocean liner to change course.

By all accounts though, the company has made several such adjustments. While the changes took time, the key ones can often be traced to a moment in time. Bill Gates' Internet Tidal Wave memo marked one such course change. The 2005 Internet Services Disruption memo, by exiting Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, was another.

Ray Ozzie, speaking at Microsoft's 2009 Professional Developer Conference. Microsoft

That long note from Ozzie not only led to the start of Windows Live and an effort to take Office into the cloud, but also helped start what became Windows Azure and company's broader effort to transform its products from software into services. More recently, Ozzie started FUSE labs, an effort to better understand social computing.

Indeed, at least one recent post suggested that the old tanker has finally changed course, even if it still has a lot of ground to make up. So, one could argue that, Ozzie's departure comes at a decent time.

But while it is true that much of Microsoft's cloud work has moved from outside Ozzie's purview and to the product teams, it is unclear who will lead the company through the next technological storm. CEO Steve Ballmer has said that the company won't fill Ozzie's role. And, indeed, perhaps it doesn't need someone with that title.

However, with Ozzie leaving and Gates no longer involved in Microsoft on a daily basis, it's not clear who there would have both the gravitas and political capital to get the entire company to turn in the same direction the next time it needs to do so. Although Ozzie never tried to fully assume the role Bill Gates had at Microsoft, he was the one person most closely associated with its long-term technology direction.

With nimble and powerful rivals like the Google and the Apple outmaneuvering Microsoft at various turns, the company needs not just someone adept at the helm, but also someone who knows the ins and outs of the waves well enough to spot foul weather on the horizon and plot a new course.

Tortured nautical references aside, it remains to be seen who will fill some very big Top-Siders.

In the mean time, here are some key moments from Ozzie's tenure:

•The 2005 Internet Services Disruption memo

•Ozzie, along with Bill Gates, launch live services push in November 2005

•A less well-publicized 2008 memo pointing out that the Web, not the PC, is at the center of the tech universe.

•His 2009 Churchill Club speech: Ray Ozzie's cloud hangs over the Valley

•My most recent interview with Ozzie, from September 2009: Ray Ozzie's view from the clouds