Will Windows and Mac OS Fall Victim to Neglect?

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Microsoft announced yesterday that Ray Ozzie is to step down from his role as the company's chief software architect (CSA). That's bad news for the millions of organizations that depend on Microsoft for their server operating systems because when visionaries stop leading tech companies, accountants and salesmen step in to take their place. And when that happens, you can kiss innovation good-bye.

With Ray Ozzie's departure leaving Microsoft rudderless and Apple all but exiting the computer market to concentrate on its i-devices, the future is not looking bright for these once unstoppable market leaders. The opposite holds true for the other server OS vendors, however.

Some acts are pretty hard to follow: Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison will be tough, but Bill Gates was always going to be the toughest in the tech industry, so Ozzie had his work cut out when he replaced Gates as the key software guru at Microsoft. He has been widely credited with leading Microsoft into the cloud with Office Web Apps, Windows Live and the Azure platform, despite being all but invisible since he took on the CSA role four years ago.

But you can't help feeling that Gates' departure was such a traumatic event for Microsoft that Ozzie was installed as a new figurehead simply to prevent a meltdown in customer and investor confidence when it was announced. "Don't worry about Gates leaving, Ozzie is just as smart, Microsoft will be alright," seemed to be the subtext of the message, and by and large customers and investors bought it. After all, Ozzie was a well qualified choice, even if, as some unkind commentators observed, he made his name by doing the same collaboration thing three times over -- first with Lotus Notes, then with Groove, and finally at Microsoft.

But now Ozzie has gone too, off to spend his dotage playing "in the broader area of entertainment," whatever that means. What must terrify Microsoft's customers is the throwaway line made by Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's CEO, in the Ozzie announcement: "the CSA role was unique, and I won't refill the role after Ray's departure. We have a strong planning process, strong technical leaders in each business group and strong innovation heading to the market."

Yikes. Going from having Gates as CSA to no CSA was too much to stomach, yet clearly Ballmer believes that the step from Ozzie as CSA to no CSA is not so great. But the fact is that a company like Microsoft needs a leader with a vision. While Ballmer may be in charge of the company, no one would accuse him of having a vision -- beyond making money, of course. He is certainly not as tech savvy as he imagines.

So as it stands Microsoft is left with "strong technical leaders in each business group" but a salesman in overall command. "Rudderless" is one term that comes to mind. "Descent into internal strife" is another.

It's rather unfortunate timing for Apple that it has chosen to turn its back on the computer market to concentrate on its i-devices just when Microsoft -- which has consistently trounced Apple in sales over the past decades -- is showing signs of potential weakness. Earlier this week, Apple announced its fourth quarter figures, which revealed the extent to which OS X has fallen in Apple's priorities: The company shifted over 27 million iPhones, iPods and iPads in the period, with just 3.9 million Macs sold as a seeming afterthought.

With Microsoft rudderless and Apple out of the game, Unix and Linux server operating system vendors must be licking their lips in anticipation of a potential feeding frenzy.

Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.

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This article was originally published on Oct 19, 2010
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