The Ray Ozzie PDC: clarity emerges from the cloud

While the Professional Developer’s Conference has traditionally been associated with the operating system it introduces, make no mistake: This is the Ray Ozzie PDC.  Windows 7 made for a nice bit of eye candy after the ethereal and hard to grasp announcements around Windows Azure on Monday, but in the long run this PDC will not be remembered for a set of bug fixes and performance improvements to an unfinished Windows Vista.

Long Zheng and Ray OzzieRay Ozzie was relaxed and confident onstage on Monday, was friendly and open when we met him at a blogger’s round table, and seemed genuinely relieved to be able to talk about where he’s taking Microsoft. For the first time, he was able to allow the pieces to fall into place: a massive data center buildout; a set of tools to manage cloud services; a seamless way to connect existing internal data, in whole or in part, to the cloud, all built with safety and security at the forefront.  Ray Ozzie is laying the groundwork for enterprise to move to the next generation of computing.  He knows he’s five years out from where it will all start really making sense, but that’s ok.

Steven Sinofsky has the Windows fortress firmly in hand, and the PDC crowd appreciated his no nonsense approach to fixing what ails Vista.  Professional developers aren’t, when it comes right down to it, all that innovative at all.  They build apps, mostly internal ones for business, and mostly ones that you or I will never see (although we gain the benefits, and feel the pain, of them every day).  They are appreciative of new tools to make producing quality code easier and better, but paradigm shifts aren’t really welcome news.  Sinofsky offered them up more of the same, just cleaned up, which is all they ever really want.  Ray Ozzie is going to pull them, sometimes kicking and screaming, into a new world order, and he can’t wait to get started.

Champagne autographed by Ray Ozzie Windows has some good years left, and Sinofsky will serve it well, but the future of computing is bigger than the desktop.  Ozzie is interested in connecting the cloud to the devices we use, changing the way we use both.  He’s interested in taking a long look at how we can store data more efficiently, and allowing us to spend less time getting at data and more time using it.  More than that, he is opening up the potential for new devices and new ways of thinking about the data we hold dear.  Windows may continue to play a role in Ozzie’s new Microsoft, especially short term, but he has his sights set on a larger vision.

Of course many in attendance at PDC this week aren’t buying into the vision, at least not yet.  Bill Gates’ original vision of a computer on every desk running Microsoft software has long since come to pass (minus 7% or so), and frankly the company has been a little short in the vision department for the past few years.  I heard a lot of talk about a lack of trust in Microsoft, a lack of trust in letting precious data outside the hallowed walls of IT data centers. Of course I’m old enough to have heard about lack of trust in keeping precious data on computers in the first place, too.

Where Microsoft faces its biggest challenges in this paradigm shift is in the battle to get people to believe in this new vision, and to stop shooting itself in the foot when talking about anything that isn’t technical.  The technology, especially the way the many pieces of Ozzie’s vision fit together, is beautifully elegant.  Microsoft’s efforts to market its vision has been anything but elegant, continuing with the announcements this week.  We heard about Live Mesh, Live Services, Live Framework, and Windows Live, all somewhat incoherently slightly different versions of the same thing. Yet the one product Microsoft has introduced in the past ten years that was begging for a technical name to appeal to the geeks that need to learn it was named, inexplicably and unpronounceably (and apparently at the last minute), Azure.

Microsoft has found a new technical leader in Ray Ozzie, a man capable of doing what Bill Gates did for personal computing, except this time in the cloud.  In Steven Sinofsky Windows is in good hands, and Windows 7 and 8 and 9 will under promise with startling accuracy, and ever so slightly over deliver, all according to plan.  Ballmer is Ballmer, pounding the streets and making sales.  Will someone emerge to take the same kind of leadership role on the branding side?  Obviously no one has yet.  A clear, focused, unified strategy to tell the story about this new Ray Ozzie Microsoft would certainly help, but Ozzie is betting on the platform and not the brand.