Ray Ozzie has a long and storied history of technological innovation, with accomplishments that include creating Lotus Notes and founding Groove Networks. But Ozzie may now be facing the most daunting challenge of his career: coordinating the work of Microsoft's various product groups to keep the world's largest software company agile enough to address the […]
Ray Ozzie has a long and storied history of technological innovation, with accomplishments that include creating Lotus Notes and founding Groove Networks. But Ozzie may now be facing the most daunting challenge of his career: coordinating the work of Microsoft's various product groups to keep the world's largest software company agile enough to address the challenge of the next generation of Internet-enabled software.
It would have been difficult to predict the events that led Ozzie to this point. Growing up in and around Chicago, the middle of three children, Ozzie liked to build things, and was more interested in constructing model train layouts and assembling cool electronic contraptions than he was in schoolwork. He was, of course, a member of the audio-visual squad in his Park Ridge, Ill., high school. It was during his freshman year there that Ozzie stumbled upon his first computer -- an encounter that would set him on the path to his future career.
But the moment that transformed Ozzie's view of the power of technology came somewhat later, when he was studying for his bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was there that Ozzie discovered the PLATO project, an early experiment to harness the power of networked computing for rich communication and group collaboration. By the mid-1970s, PLATO's many features included email and an instant messaging feature dubbed "Talk-O-Matic." Ozzie wrangled a job working on the project, and, while doing so, communicated online with a collaborator who worked remotely from off-campus. Ozzie was impressed by the eloquence and intelligence of his offsite workmate and the two quickly bonded. Ozzie's only complaint was that when they sent instant messages to each other, his offsite colleague was a frustratingly slow typist.
After their joint project was completed, Ozzie met his remote partner in person for the first time during a party at the partner's house in 1975. Only then did Ozzie discover that his colleague was a quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair, whose slow typing was a result of having to interact with the keyboard using a stick held in his mouth.
The incident had a profound effect on Ozzie. He was struck by how the technology allowed them to connect so closely, despite physical constraints and without preconceived judgments. The two had met in a shared mental space that was uniquely enabled by networked technology.
Much of Ozzie's work since that day has centered on exploring how technology can allow people to connect and collaborate online. He created what would become Lotus Notes, one of the first commercially successful "groupware" applications. Following the acquisition of Lotus by IBM, Ozzie left to found Groove Networks where he developed a new generation of desktop collaboration software. When Groove Networks was acquired by Microsoft in April 2005, Ozzie joined Microsoft as a chief technical officer. On June 15, 2006, Ozzie was given the title formerly held by Microsoft founder Bill Gates of chief software architect. Gates remains Microsoft's chairman.
At Microsoft, Ozzie has led the company's "Live" initiative, focused on supplementing Microsoft's traditional desktop applications with web-based software and services. But his mission is much broader: to make sure the company's various product groups coordinate their efforts to take advantage of what he termed -- in a now famous memo sent to Microsoft's executive staff on October 28, 2005 -- the "Internet services disruption."
Accomplishing this feat won't be easy, in part because Microsoft is facing challenges on multiple fronts -- technical, business and cultural. New cross-platform technologies threaten to establish a new layer of abstraction that could reduce the importance of the operating system as a software development platform. Emerging business models -- such as open-source software and "free" advertising-supported applications -- threaten to undermine the economic basis for Microsoft's longstanding success. And while Microsoft's size provides it with enormous resources, some wonder whether this may make it difficult for the company to remain agile enough to break from its past successes and address these new challenges.