Ray Ozzie is an innovator, the kind who inspires awe. He worked on the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc, and he led the development of Lotus Notes. He has been described as one of the greatest programmers in the world. He succeeded Bill Gates as Chief Software Architect of Microsoft. He was a visionary who saw the importance of cloud computing before it was generally acknowledged. He was thinking about the implications of cloud computing when most of us in IT still thought of “cloud” as only a graphic for a WAN. What interests me is how he did it. What makes Ray Ozzie smarter than the rest of us? And even more important, can we get his recipe for genius and rub some on our foreheads?
A few days ago, I stumbled on Ozzie’s two long emails to Microsoft that are published on his blog: The Internet Services Disruption and Dawn Of a New Day. They were written shortly after he joined Microsoft and shortly before he left five years later. I hadn’t planned to read them but after I started, I couldn't stop. The emails drop some powerful hints to his approach to innovation and insight. The predictions may be dated, but his approach is not.
The First Email
The first email, sent in October 2005, could be called a "Proclamation of the Cloud," in which Ozzie laid out the importance of cloud to the future of computing, the rising importance of services rather than applications, the appearance of continuously connected mobile non-PC devices, and alternative business models from installed licensed software.
It's good to understand just how disruptive the contents of that email was. Until recently, most software developers’ business was based on charging for licensed software executed on a processor and storage unit plugged into a computer sitting on someone's desk.
As Ozzie warned, that model is on the cusp of disappearance.
To see what is happening, go no further than the iPad, where I typed the first draft of this blog. Granted, I have a licensed word processing program and enough storage to keep a few documents on the iPad, so it’s still the old business model in a new form factor. But the business model is only a matter of habit. The iPad is set up for continuous connectivity to the Internet, and I could easily switch to a cloud-based word processor and cloud storage. No licenses, no more software upgrades and patches, no more finicky storage, no more backups. Service providers in the cloud take care of it all. The iPad is just a viewer, scarcely a computer at all. It’s easy to anticipate that a wireless viewer like the iPad will soon evolve into a throwaway consumable like a pre-paid cell phone.
For the computer user, will this be wonderland? Or a nightmare? One thing is certain: a catastrophe is brewing for any software business strapped to the old business model.
Ozzie predicted it. Can he help us find our way through it?
Fortunately, Ozzie has given us clues to his methods. Last fall, shortly before he left Microsoft, Ozzie published his second email-- in Dawn Of a New Day--and wrote some things that touch the core of innovation and leadership. I would call his method “pragmatic optimism.”
He wrote, "those who envision a plausible future brighter than today will earn the opportunity to lead."
The key phrase is “envision a plausible brighter future.” To lead, imagine a future both likely to occur and bright. Neither an improbable fairy tale nor a dystopian vision will yield the opportunity to be a leader.
That's an important insight for innovation as well as leadership. All great innovation leads to a bright future. That may sound like unbridled optimism, but it is actually practical. An innovation that is a change for the worse seldom makes it to the starting gate and can never maintain the sustained effort necessary for success.