At PDC, Microsoft's (r)evolution on display

A key developer conference this week will reveal just how much progress Ray Ozzie has made in his efforts to remake Redmond for the cloud computing era.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
5 min read

When Ray Ozzie first landed at Microsoft in 2005, he found a company with lots of good ideas. He also found things were getting in the way of innovation, everything from businesses that weren't thinking about the broader company strategy to the way Microsoft stationed each of its workers in their own office.

As the new chief software architect set out to work on Microsoft's cloud-based strategy, he also started doing his part to shift that corporate culture. To house his team, Ozzie had Microsoft tear up its typical floor plan. Instead of tons of hallways and offices, Ozzie wanted lots of common space and whiteboards everywhere. Once a notable oddity at Microsoft, such work areas have become increasingly common in recent years.

Ray Ozzie, chief software architect,
Microsoft" credit="Microsoft" />

Ozzie also quickly set to work on changing Microsoft's product development, first detailing his plans publicly in a 2005 memo, titled the "Internet Services Disruption."

In the missive, Ozzie talked about the emergence of advertising as a business model for software, new ways of delivering software, and the need to make things simpler in an era where users are inundated with technology choices. Ozzie and company Chairman Bill Gates talked about a wave of "Live" software that would extend Microsoft's products with new Internet-based services.

Ozzie challenged the company that it was faced with new challenges and aggressive competitors that threatened its cash cows, but was careful to only rock the boat so hard.

"In assessing where we are and where we need to be, some new efforts will surely require incubation," Ozzie wrote in 2005. "But in many areas we have 80 percent of the product and technical infrastructure already built--we just need to close the 20 percent gap."

The extent to which Ozzie has managed to reshape Microsoft's product and culture since then will be on display this week, as Microsoft hosts a major conference for its developers in Los Angeles.

Azure, Office unveilings
At the Professional Developer Conference, as the event is known, Microsoft is expected to announce the commercial launch of Windows Azure as well as a beta version of its Office 2010 software. Ozzie is set to speak on Tuesday, while office unit senior vice president Kurt DelBene will be part of Wednesday's keynote address.


The arrival of those two products shows just how much has changed since Ozzie's memo.

Shown for the first time at last year's PDC, Windows Azure is the operating system re-imagined for the cloud computing era. Instead of controlling a local PC or server, Azure is designed as a platform where developers write programs that run from inside Microsoft's massive data centers. Microsoft and customers have been testing Azure since then as part of a free technology preview. Starting in February, though, Microsoft plans to start charging based on how much computing resources a customer is using.

Office, while one of Microsoft's core products, is in the midst of a major shift. Amid competition from Web-based rivals such as Google Apps, the product is morphing into a number of different forms, everything from the traditional desktop suite, to a hosted Web service, to free browser-based applications.

Showing off other wares
Beyond Azure and Office, Microsoft will also be talking about other topics ranging from identity systems to developer tools.

It will also be showing some new technology coming out of its labs--highlighting some closer ties between the company's research unit and its product groups.

Live Labs head Gary Flake is scheduled to show off "a new approach to exploring information on the Web."

Meanwhile, Microsoft's Seadragon unit is showing off a couple new projects. Seadragon is known for a "deep zoom" technology that allows a user to dive into an image, going from a wide angle to the finest grain of detail.

One of the group's new efforts--Snapdragon--is designed as a new concept approach to image search. "Snapdragon utilizes Flickr images to prototype what image search would be if, instead of searching, we allowed users to explore images and the relationships between them," Microsoft said on its Web site.

The other is a collection of work by artist Chris Jordan. Jordan's work is particularly well suited to Snapdragon's deep zoom since it uses thousands of everyday objects to create a broader image. In one picture, for example, Jordan uses thousands of cigarette packs to recreate Van Gogh's smoking skull portrait. In another, Jordan uses soda cans to recreate a Seurat painting.

But more than any one product or technology, PDC will serve as a chance to check back and see what impact Ozzie has made with that 2005 memo and in the years since.

For some groups, Ozzie's memo was a codification of what they were already doing. Corporate vice president Dave Thompson, who was running Microsoft's Exchange team at the time, said his group was already moving in that direction--having already bought FrontBridge and PlaceWare--acquisitions that became Live Meeting and Exchange Hosted Services. Plus, Microsoft had started its pilot program with Energizer to see what other sorts of services it might be able to take on for large businesses.

"When Ray sent his memo, it was a broad call-to-action that was a great affirmation and a rallying point for the efforts already underway," Thompson said in an e-mail interview.

But Ozzie acknowledged that the shift to services--and the transition from Bill Gates' style to his--was more jarring for others.

"My engagement style is far different from Bill's," Ozzie said in a recently published interview with analysts from Gartner. "For a number of groups, that has worked out really well. With others, there are challenges. Some people have a different style or a different view of how they want to take it."

Ozzie says that Gates was supportive of the places that his successor wanted to take the company, but also said that neither he nor Gates really knew how to get there.

"In those days, I had conversations with Bill and he'd say, 'Well that's pretty dramatic or radical in terms of what you are trying to accomplish. It's the right thing to do and if you do it, that will be great,' " Ozzie recalled in the Gartner interview. "And I said, 'How?' And he'd say, 'I don't know. It starts with a memo, and I don't know what happens after that.'"

Nonetheless, Ozzie says, Microsoft has gotten where he hoped the company would get. "When I look back and I read the memo, so many of the things that I had written have come to pass, not because I drove them to make it happen, but because the organization made it happen. It may have happened a little differently here or there, but it happened. So, I'm very pleased about that."

Of course, CNET News will be on hand to see what else Ozzie and team have in store, so check back throughout the week to catch our live, ongoing coverage of the event.