Steve Ballmer's replacement needs to make this phone call

If Microsoft's outgoing chief executive had listened to Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's incoming CEO would have a much easier go of it.

Charles Cooper Former Executive Editor / News
Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.
Charles Cooper
4 min read
Ray Ozzie and Steve Ballmer
Ray Ozzie (left), at that time the chief software architect at Microsoft, and CEO Steve Ballmer speak at the D: All Things Digital conference shortly before Ozzie's departure from Microsoft in 2010. Ina Fried/CNET
Once Microsoft's board of directors announces the name of the company's next chief executive, get ready for nonstop kibbitzing.

"Sell this business. Buy that startup. Hire! Fire! Go mobile. Go big. Go east. Go west."

Something like that. When it comes to offering free advice, there's no shortage of tech analysts and know-it-all columnists eager to retail today's conventional wisdom for prime time. And given that we're talking about Microsoft, seemingly everyone is going to have an opinion about what the new boss ought to do.

Amusing, but all part of a sideshow. The person soon to inherit Steve Ballmer's job will know how to tune out the talking heads while the more immediate need is to pick up the phone to talk to the super-smart people out there who can help. When that time arrives, the first call ought to go out to Ray Ozzie. It's too late for the outgoing boss, but the incoming boss at Microsoft ought to listen carefully to what Ozzie has to say.

Peering into the future
For years, Ozzie tried to steer Microsoft into a post-PC future, predicting the emergence of Internet services and Internet devices.

But his prophecies fell Cassandra-like on deaf ears.

For those not familiar with his resume, Ozzie made a big mark with his invention of Notes, a 1990s-era collaborative groupware application that was revolutionary for the time. IBM later paid more than $3 billion to buy Lotus in order to get the program -- really big money in those days -- as well as to bring along Ozzie. Without Notes, Lou Gerstner would have never bothered with Lotus, which was getting clobbered in the market by -- you guessed it -- Microsoft.

Ozzie subsequently launched a startup called Groove that Microsoft acquired in 2005. He took over for Bill Gates as Microsoft's chief software architect the following year. Before his official move into the job, Ozzie tried to get Microsoft to modify its Windows-centric view of the world in a 5,000-word memo outlining Microsoft's shortcomings as well as the potential opportunities in the Internet 2.0 age. It's worth a read. The headline was Ozzie's insistence that Microsoft get involved in the shift toward services and service-based software, riffing on what we now refer to as cloud computing.

Products must deliver a seamless experience, one in which all the technology in your life 'just works' and can work together, on your behalf, under your control. This means designs centered on an intentional fusion of internet-based services with software, and sometimes even hardware, to deliver meaningful experiences and solutions with a level of seamless design and use that couldn't be achieved without such a holistic approach.

Reading that passage in 2013, you wonder why the message landed on deaf ears. But Microsoft was a big bureaucratic company and not everyone necessarily was ready to pull in the same direction.

Even when we've been solidly in pursuit of a common vision, our end-to-end execution of key scenarios has often been uneven -- in large part because of the complexity of doing such substantial undertakings. In any large project, the sheer number of moving parts sometimes naturally causes compartmentalization of decisions and execution. Some groups might lose sight of how their piece fits in, or worse, might develop features without a clear understanding of how they'll be used. In some cases by the time the vision is delivered, the pieces might not quite fit into the originally-envisioned coherent whole.

By 2010, Ozzie had had enough. Before clocking out, however, he gathered his thoughts for another long memo, this one optimistically titled "Dawn of a New Day." It's politely written but still a blunt indictment of a "PC-centric/server-centric" Microsoft that inexplicably dawdled over while Google and Apple went on to capture big leads in technology's hottest growth businesses.

"Certain of our competitors' products and their rapid advancement and refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy," he said, noting that "their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware and software and services, and in social networking and myriad new forms of Internet-centric social interaction."

Ozzie also put Microsoft on notice: stop making things hard on users.

"Complexity kills. Complexity sucks the life out of users, developers and IT," he said. "Complexity makes products difficult to plan, build, test and use. Complexity introduces security challenges. Complexity causes administrator frustration."

Again, he proved prescient. Microsoft eventually grokked what Ozzie was talking about and pledged itself to a future that was going to be all about devices and services. Two years after Ozzie had left the company.