Now at MS, Ray Ozzie becomes central figure again in software

The Notes creator jumped to Microsoft and has been making news ever since.

ANALYSIS -- Last January over club sodas, beers and such at an IBM Lotusphere cocktail reception, Groove Technology's Ray Ozzie regaled Domino Notes devotees with tales of software wars past. The larger Lotus community was heartened later when Ozzie, a founder of Notes collaborative software, appeared in a keynote panel.

As the high-tech world now knows, Ozzie was soon to sell his Groove Networks start-up and its collaboration platform to Microsoft, and to place himself more firmly than ever in the Microsoft camp. If Ozzie's presence at Lotusphere 2005 was a tonic for the Notes crowd, the effect soon wore off.

In taking on a role as Microsoft chief technology officer, Ozzie managed to place himself at the center of today's most heated software battles. In September, he was tapped by Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates to lead planning of Microsoft's efforts in software-based services.

Ozzie thus became a key figure in one of the biggest stories of the year. Microsoft insider documents, including an e-mail authored by Ozzie, discussed the issues the company faced as Google began to emerge as a "Web 2.0" challenger in much the way that Netscape emerged in the first Web days.

Ozzie played a role in a smaller story too. For IBM Lotus, which saw its messaging marketplace share ebb as Microsoft moved forward over the years with Exchange and Outlook, losing Ozzie to Microsoft took some air out of efforts to move the IBM Lotus Workplace collaboration platform into prominence. It is true that Ozzie's Groove platform was already pretty firmly in the Windows world. But the formal deal, and Ozzie's quick rise to prominence at Microsoft, left IBM Lotus again in something of a defensive position.

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Some say IBM Lotus was already lagging, although they see value in the Workplace collaborative software platform Big Blue Lotus has been rolling out over the last few years. Lotus community blogger, writer and developer John Vaughan is in that group.

Did Microsoft steal Lotus' thunder? Responds Vaughan in an e-mail: "Well seeing as Ozzie made an appearance at Lotusphere right before he was hired at 'M$', I have to think that maybe they did. You have to wonder if IBM wasn't trying to get him back. But from what I can tell 'M$' had stolen that thunder long before they acquired Groove. If there was a game of chess being played, 'M$' was playing from the beginning to win, and IBM (from what I can tell) only started playing at the end."

Peter O'Kelly, senior analyst for Application Platform Strategies at Burton Group, saw Microsoft's endorsement of collaboration via its Groove purchase as good for collaborative software generally. "Both Microsoft and IBM are bringing very competitive collaborative portfolios [to market]," said O'Kelly. "It is a good time to be a customer."

It is arguable whether Ozzie's move is a negative for IBM Lotus, but it is clearly a plus for Microsoft. Shortly after coming on board, Ozzie joined others that looked at how software tools are being distributed on the Web, and began to look at new models of software selling as well.

"When you get this collective group of people viewed as pundits with records of what they have done, I look at it as a positive move," Gartner Research Director Theresa Lanowitz said. "It is worthwhile to have people thinking about how to break up the status quo, as for example, in how software is sold or built."

Gates has said the quest for Ozzie goes back some while. "Steve [Ballmer] and I would often sit down and say, hey, of all the people, if we could hire one person who's not at Microsoft, is there any way we could get Ray," Gates said at the time of the Groove purchase.

When Ozzie did get to Microsoft, he came when Gates and company were wrestling with a late Longhorn desktop operating system, how much should be embedded and how much should be add-on, and some conflicting notions about where one layer of software should start and another should leave off. Late software projects also marred the company's efforts.

For now, Ozzie's activity seems centered on Web services. But his Groove work will be on view in Microsoft's next attempt to push its all-important desktop productivity offering into the area of group productivity software. In spring of 2006, observers will be watching to see how Ozzie's penchant for collaborative software plays out in the first public beta of Office 12. With his track record, expectations are high.

"Ozzie stands above the fray," said observer Peter O'Kelly, at the time of the Microsoft acquisition. With Groove, O'Kelly said, Ozzie has been "trying to find ways for people to communicate and collaborate more."

"He saw the shift in the industry where increasingly work is done by disparate teams, often from multiple organizations," he added. That sounds like a good background for a new look at Web services in the light of Google's and other "Web 2.0" advocates' efforts.

Groove is fundamentally about letting people have a high degree of autonomy, said Burton Group's O'Kelly. For his part, Ozzie seems to have gained great autonomy quite quickly at Microsoft -- a kind he might never have achieved if he'd stayed at Lotus after it bought IBM. His prospects and projects will be watched, and the industry veteran is sure to be tested further in 2006. This article originally appeared on SearchVB.com.

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