BOSTON – Ray Ozzie's elevation Thursday to replace Bill Gates as chief software architect at Microsoft Corp. reflects the deep respect Ozzie enjoys in the computing industry and his expertise in online services — a hotly competitive field Microsoft is still trying to master.
Ozzie, 50, had been a chief technical officer at Microsoft since it bought Groove Networks Inc., Ozzie's collaboration software company. Long before last year's acquisition, though, Ozzie was at the forefront of several important computing trends.
After beginning his career as a programmer for an insurance company in the 1970s, Ozzie was part of a pioneering computing project at the University of Illinois. In the early 1980s, spreadsheet inventors Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston hired him away from Data General Corp. to join their Software Arts Inc.
In 1982, Ozzie joined Lotus Development Corp. and helped make it a powerhouse in office software. He led a team that created Lotus Symphony, a precursor to Microsoft's Office package, and later developed what evolved into Lotus Notes, software that enabled people to form teams and share documents and e-mail. Notes' success inspired IBM Corp. to buy Lotus for $3.5 billion in 1995; today IBM says Notes has 125 million users worldwide.
Notes also had a huge impact on Microsoft. As Bricklin recalled Thursday, Ozzie's team created Notes for a very early version of Windows. As Notes progressed, the group offered feedback to Microsoft — a Lotus competitor — on how to fix certain bugs, earning Ozzie the admiration of Gates in the process.
It also may have helped lay the groundwork for the late '90s Web revolution, which benefited from a huge installed base of computers inside companies. That was partly the case "because they had all installed Notes," Bricklin said.
"The switch to the Internet and the Web was relatively easy. The hard step was the switch to Notes," he added. When the Web came along, "there were a lot of waiting desks with computers, and the networks were all set up."
Two years after IBM bought Lotus, Ozzie launched Groove to take his idea of "groupware" to a higher level.
With the backing of investors such as Lotus founder Mitch Kapor — and Microsoft — Groove offered a way for people to work together on the same virtual sketchpad, view the same video presentation or edit documents simultaneously, all while chatting by text or voice. Boeing Co., Harvard Medical School and U.S. government agencies were customers.
Even with those accolades, however, Microsoft's March 2005 purchase of Beverly, Mass.-based Groove — the cost of the deal was not disclosed — was widely seen as a way for Gates to finally get the admired Ozzie in his camp. Ozzie became one of three chief technical officers at Microsoft.
Ozzie is considered a thoughtful, deliberate programmer. He tried to remain in the Boston area as much as possible, but ended up spending most of his time in Redmond, Wash., where clearly he made his presence felt quickly.
Last November, he wrote an influential memo outlining his ideas for the overhaul he felt Microsoft needed in order to respond to growing competition in Web-based services from the likes of Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc.
He advocated a shift away from some of Microsoft's traditional practices and toward free, ad-supported software, with more sophisticated, Internet-based methods of product delivery.
Now responsibility for solving such puzzles will rest even more on Ozzie's shoulders.
"For most of my life," he wrote in a 2002 blog entry, "it has been my goal to explore what lies at the intersection between people, organizations, and technology. ... The way that I explore is to build products, and to see how they are used. To see what works, and what doesn't. To listen, to interact, to refine."