Ozzie and Harriet in Redmond

By now you must have read about the widely publicized decision by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to step down from his position as chief software architect two years from now, while retaining the job of chairman and still running his foundation. Most of the analysts agree that it is not that dramatic a change, and that Gates will remain in a power position — “the ninth vote” that ends any technology or business debate in the power corridors on the Redmond campus..

Ray Ozzie, who had been a Microsoft CTO, is now chief software architect. Another CTO, Craig Mundie, is now chief research and strategy officer. Ozzie is responsible for the development of VisiCalc, Lotus Notes and Groove Networks, and the author of the recent memo outlining Microsoft’s services strategy. Both Ozzie and Mundie are alumni of Data General, the Westboro, Mass. minicomputer maker immortalized in the book Soul Of A New Machine by Tracy Kidder (I also worked at Data General during the time of Kidder’s book, from 1976-1979).

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s CEO, pointed out that the transition is more about how Microsoft, led by Ozzie, will add services to everything it does, as well as move beyond the PC into other devices such as mobile phones and televisions. The key to Microsoft’s new strategy, according to Ozzie as quoted by Ina Fried of CNET News.com, is that “every offering that we have in the company in some way, shape or form is going to be touched by services.” According to Ozzie (as quoted by Barbara Darrow in CRN), Mundie will determine how to build prototype projects and handle development projects “both applied and research.” He will also handle intellectual property issues and policy. Ozzie’s realm will start at advanced development and center on products and product strategy.

Journalists seized on the opportunity to ask Ozzie and Mundie about how Microsoft turns ideas into products and strategies — bringing up specifically Bill Gates’ semi-annual “Think Week” that gave Gates the opportunity to comment on all proposed projects. Twice a year Bill would go into seclusion for a week and read thousands of pages of research reports, emails, product plans, and white papers. But Ray Ozzie disputed the notion that Bill alone provided feedback. As quoted in CNET News.com’s report, Ozzie said:

Bill has not actually read all the papers in a think week in, I believe he said, four years. As the process has evolved, individual employees realized this is a great opportunity to get a broad amount of visibility, and as it’s progressed, more people have been commenting on think week papers, not just Bill.

Mundie agreed, and added:

That one is sort of mythological in proportion because people have read about it. But one of Bill’s great strengths has been, I think, in many ways, solidification of ideas from the various brain trusts in the company for years and years, and his ability to bring that together.

I’ve always thought that you could figure out where Microsoft is going next by reading Bill Gates’ lips in interviews, speeches, and press conferences. Like Babe Ruth, Gates would point in the direction of his next home run and get ready to swing at the pitch. He then would leave it up to the spin controllers at Microsoft to remove any ballplayers who might get in his way. It was refreshing, at least, to occasionally read about Gates remarking in petulant tones about a competitor while his spin-control machine was looking the other way. Bill Gates typically takes any competition personally. You can glean quite a bit about which companies and technologies get under his skin from listening to his occasional slips in interviews and off-the-cuff answers to reporters’ questions — such as Gates’ criticism of Google last year, as quoted by Fred Vogelstein in “Gates vs. Google: Search and Destroy” in Fortune, May 16, 2005:

“There are companies that are just so cool that you just can’t even deal with it,” Gates said sarcastically, suggesting that Google was nothing more than the latest fad. Gates then added, “At least they know to wear black.”

Do you think we’ll ever see this kind of candid response from Ozzie and Mundie? So far, I have trouble staying awake while reading their spin-controlled interviews. Despite Ozzie’s fresh outlook and innovative past, I don’t see how this dynamic duo can pull off a dramatic sea change for Microsoft while still in Steve Ballmer’s shadow.

While Ozzie is a relative newcomer with new ideas, Mundie has been at Microsoft since 1992. Clearly his ideas have helped shape Microsoft’s strategies in the last decade, which doesn’t give me confidence that the company will change much. Back in 2002, Mundie took a hard line about security as overseer of the company’s Trustworthy Computing initiative — he told an audience, according to Paul Boutin in Wired News, that in response to the threat of terrorist cyberattacks, Microsoft would deploy security fixes to its installed base of hundreds of millions of computers worldwide in the coming year — even if those fixes break applications in use by customers. “We’re going to tell people that even if it means we’re going to break some of your apps, we’re going to make these things more secure. You’re just going to have to go back and fix it.”

Let the record show that Microsoft was unable to truly fix its installed base as of 2006, even though the fixes it did provide certainly did break apps.

And it is also unlikely that Microsoft will embrace the open-source model anytime soon. Wikipedia is particularly critical of Mundie — “Mundie has repeatedly been accused of spreading FUD by people in the open source and free software community” — and has even challenged his resume as having developed the first operating system for Data General’s Nova minicomputer. Mundie’s crime to the open source community is his criticism of the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL):

The GPL mandates that any software that incorporates source code already licensed under the GPL will itself become subject to the GPL. When the resulting software product is distributed, its creator must make the entire source code base freely available to everyone, at no additional charge. This viral aspect of the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property of any organization making use of it. It also fundamentally undermines the independent commercial software sector because it effectively makes it impossible to distribute software on a basis where recipients pay for the product rather than just the cost of distribution.

Mundie further clarified his views on GPL and the open-source model in a Gartner Fellows interview:

There is an ongoing misunderstanding between the use of source code access as an aid in technology education, and in open source as a short cut for driving technology transfers into local commercial environments. The first approach has been the history of open source and that’s an essential, positive benefit of code access. On the other hand, licenses that are restricted and don’t allow for direct commercialization (of the source code) will not help achieve a sustainable local software economy.

With Ozzie and Mundie at the helm, Microsoft is not likely to make its transition — from Office and Windows revenue streams to services — very quickly. While heaping praise on Ozzie for at least having a truly innovative past, let’s not forget that Mundie, and ultimately Ballmer, will remain “the voice of reason” in Redmond.

I couldn’t help comparing the Ozzie and Mundie relationship to the one in the TV show “Ozzie and Harriet” (about Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their sons David and Ricky Nelson), which lasted 14 years on American television despite its tired formula of parents raising precocious children. Indeed, Microsoft may last another 14 years despite its tired formula of proprietary software lock-in based on a monopoly base. Read the following description of Ozzie and Harriet’s relationship to see how it might fit Ray Ozzie, a more impulsive idealist, and Craig Mundie, the voice of reason:

The genial, bumbling Ozzie was the narrative linchpin of Ozzie and Harriet, attempting to steer his young sons into the proper paths (usually rather ineffectually) and attempting to assert his ego in a household in which he was often ill at ease. That ego, and that household, were held together by wise homemaker Harriet. Although she may have seemed something of a cipher to many viewers, clad in the elegant dresses that defined the housewife on 1950s television, Harriet represented the voice of reason on Ozzie and Harriet, rescuing Ozzie — and occasionally David and Rick — from the consequences of over-impulsive behavior.

My question is, will a Ricky Nelson emerge?

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Ozzie and Harriet in Redmond — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Get Off Microsoft » Blog Archive » Google Apps and Office Naps

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