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Here's a throwback idea that might offer a way out for Microsoft

Ray Ozzie wants to build bridges between the client-server and services worlds. How ironic if the network computer provides a model for Microsoft's salvation.

Ray Ozzie: Compared with Microsoft, Lotus was a cinch CNET Networks

Ray Ozzie is one of the most well-respected computer scientists around. He pioneered innovations in groupware software during previous stints at Lotus and Groove and now is working to bring Microsoft's technology strategy more in step with the demands of the Internet age as its chief software architect.

So when the man speaks, it pays to listen. Ozzie piqued my attention recently when he offered a provocative rumination on the suitability of current operating systems and client machines during a recent interview with Om Malik.

"A student today or a Web start-up, they don't actually start at the desktop. They start at the Web, they start building Web solutions, and immediately deploy that to a browser. So from that perspective, what programming models can I give these folks that they can extend that functionality out to the edge? In the cases where they want mobility, where they want a rich dynamic experience as a piece of their solution, how can I make it incremental for them to extend those things, as opposed to learning the desktop world from scratch?"

Translation: In a 'Web-ified' world, the proprietary approach which propelled Microsoft to fame and fabulous riches is in need of a radical revamp. I'm sure the Wizard of Oz(zie) would put a more ambiguous touch on my interpretation. But as he acknowledged to Malik, Microsoft designed Windows to work on local area networks, not the Internet.

If he could wave his magic wand, what might Ozzie do? The company can go only so far without jeopardizing a profitable, recurring revenue stream. But again, that's looking backward. The more interesting software work is taking place on the Web, not at the operating system level. In part, that's where the software-plus-services approach can help. Pushing out applications as services over the Internet--perhaps on a lease or rental model--is an idea whose time has come. (If you want proof, just look at what Marc Beniof has built at

In his keynote earlier in the month at the Mix '08 event in Las Vegas, Ozzie teased the crowd with hints of a "seamless mesh" or "syncromesh," seemingly reflecting his long research in synchronization and collaboration.

"Just imagine the possibilities of unified application management across the device mesh, centralized, Web-based deployment of device-based applications. Imagine an app platform that's cognizant of all of your devices. Now, as it so happens, we've had a team at Microsoft working on this specific scenario for some time now, starting with the PC and focused on the question of how we might make life so much easier for individuals if we just brought together all your PCs into a seamless mesh, for users, for developers, using the Web as a hub."

Where is he heading with all this? Microsoft's not saying much but my colleague Dan Farber wrote after Ozzie's speech that Microsoft's likely "working on the plumbing required to create a seamless mesh that can synchronize content, services and applications across a variety of devices and user scenarios via the Web as a hub."

Sounds plausible but what an irony that a decade ago, Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy were talking about a not all too different scenario. At the time, those two were barnstorming around the country to promote the then-foreign concept of the network computer. Of course, their aim was to sink Microsoft by obviating the need for a rich proprietary operating system. But at a basic level, the network computer idea revolved around what today we would call cloud computing. Unfortunately for Sun Microsystems and Oracle, it would take another decade before the industry would create fast enough connections and enough storage to make it feasible.