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Behind The Curtain of Microsoft's 'Great Oz'

By many accounts, Ray Ozzie stepped into some big shoes just over a year ago when he took over Bill Gates' day-to-day role as Microsoft's chief software architect (CSA).

What made Gates think he was and is up to the job? Plenty, including Ozzie's own innovative footprints going back over twenty years that still influence the tech industry.

But is that pedigree enough to help lead Microsoft into the next era of software?

Ozzie is well known as the father of Lotus Notes in the early 1980s, the first -– and some would argue still the pre-eminent -– groupware/collaboration application.

Ray Ozzie
Ray Ozzie.
Source: Microsoft

These days, Notes, which just witnessed the release of Version 8, is owned by Microsoft's arch-competitor IBM. But it's Ozzie's vision in that product that many industry analysts say he has to bring to bear at Microsoft.

Peter O'Kelly, now research director at analyst firm the Burton Group, worked for Ozzie at both Lotus and later at Groove Networks, the collaboration-focused start-up that Microsoft acquired in 1995.

"One of his defining factors is that Ray has a penchant for seeing five years or more into the future," O'Kelly told InternetNews.com. "If you go back to 1984 and say the future is going to be about Notes, people would have thought you were crazy."

Others might have thought the idea of Ozzie’s and Gates’ management styles meshing was crazy, as well. On the surface, Ozzie's style seems 180-degrees out of Gates' infamous "prove that I'm wrong or get out of my face" reputation. Ozzie has always been known, both personally and professionally, for his patience, his penchant toward egalitarianism and his openness to others' ideas and input.

But what makes him seem the best possible replacement for Gates as Microsoft's technological compass, say colleagues, is his stiletto-sharp intellect –- something even Gates has admired over the more than 20 years that the two have been acquainted.

"I've never been able to imagine a Microsoft without Bill Gates, but Ray would be the only logical candidate for the fierceness of his vision," Steve Gillmor, industry observer, blogger and gadfly, told InternetNews.com.

The 'Platform Approach' Backstory

Ray Ozzie was born on November 20, 1955, and was raised in the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Illinois, according to a profile of him in the 1986 book, "Programmers at Work."

He graduated from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor's degree in computer science in 1979. While there, he worked on an educational mainframe system dubbed Plato, which had many of the features that would later come to define groupware applications. These included "online forums and message boards, e-mail, chat rooms, instant messaging, remote screen sharing, and multiplayer games," according to a site dedicated to the Plato system.

Back then, one of the Plato's system utilities -– an online discussion tool -– was named "Notes."

After college, Ozzie worked for Jonathan Sachs at Data General, a Massachusetts-based large-scale computer manufacturer. (Sachs would later, along with Mitch Kapor, found Lotus Development Corp.)

In 1981, Software Arts founders Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston -- the creators of the first electronic spreadsheet program for desktop computers, called VisiCalc -- hired Ozzie. Arguably the first so-called "killer app," VisiCalc gave business users a compelling reason to own PCs.

While there, Ozzie worked on building a software platform meant to let VisiCalc run on different operating systems. This "platform approach" would be a long-running theme in his career.

In 1982, Ozzie developed the functional specifications for what would later become Lotus Notes, with the plan of starting his own company, according to a work history posted by Ozzie on an old old MSN Spaces blog. In it, he credits his work on Plato as one of the inspirations for Notes. At the end of that entry he adds, perfunctorily, "Failed to obtain funding."

A year later, Kapor and Sachs lured Ozzie away from Software Arts to work on Lotus Symphony. Their company, Lotus Development, had struck gold with an IBM PC-compatible electronic spreadsheet named Lotus 1-2-3, and it quickly dominated the burgeoning business applications market. Lotus 1-2-3 became the killer app for the pre-Windows PC.

Computers of the day couldn't easily switch between one standalone application and another – you had to close the app you were using before you could start another. Symphony got around that by providing a suite of related business products -– spreadsheet, word processor, database, graphing tool, and dialup communications -– all in a single, integrated app.

In 1984, Ozzie left Lotus and founded Iris Associates in order to develop Notes. When it shipped in 1989, it was sold by Lotus as Lotus Notes. Lotus eventually acquired Iris Associates in 1994, and was in turn bought out by IBM in 1995.

"It was so revolutionary that it changed everything," Michael Gould, senior analyst at Forrester Research, told InternetNews.com. "Notes forced people to wake up to a whole new way of working."

Ozzie subsequently started Groove Networks in 1997, and developed Groove, a messaging and collaboration client based on a peer-to-peer architecture instead of Notes' more centralized model. It was also an early product to use XML, one of Gates' passions.

Along the way, Ozzie distinguished himself as a strong and compassionate manager, smart executive, brilliant product designer, and a programmer's programmer.

"[What stands out about Ozzie is] his ability to be open to new ideas," Frankston told InternetNews.com. "If anybody can [succeed as Microsoft's chief software architect] he can, because he's able to look at the larger issues."

Even before he got the CSA's job, Ozzie seemed to be trying to do just that.

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