Ozzie at the Bat

ozziechurchillMicrosoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie faced down two hardball questions in a Q & A wrap to a conversation with Wired editor Steven Levy at the Churchill Club. On one, a much anticipated question about Google’s new realtime collaboration tool Wave, Ozzie had put a lot of thought into the answer. He praised the small startup project as only he could, as a clone of the Groove software he sold to Microsoft while joining the company and taking the CSA reins from Bill Gates.

But he also critiqued the Google effort as “anti-Web”, suggesting the project took on such a hard problem that its complexity might curb its adoption. Nonetheless, he seemed to relish learning from Google’s effort, positioning Live Mesh as a simpler reworking of Groove in the context of integration into the Microsoft OS. For a Silicon Valley audience who probably has paid little notice to Mesh, Ozzie’s careful dissection may spark some deeper attention as Wave exits its early pilot stages and grapples with integration into Google Apps.

The other hardball was more in keeping with the wonky nature of the conversation, which ranged from a deep dive into the Windows prospects for netbooks to a peek behind the politics of Microsoft’s transition into the Cloud. It was a straightforward question about whether Microsoft would support HTML 5 in Internet Explorer,. After a sly jibe at competitors talking about “modern browsers” and saying he had nothing specific to announce, he slapped a screamer back up the middle: “I think you can expect us to do the right thing.”

Ozzie knows this is the line in the sand Google is trying to draw with Wave, Chrome, and Android: that open standards will force Microsoft to comply with standards-based technologies that will reduce IE’s control of the browser landscape. Yet throughout his Valley sojourn, Ozzie reflected a confidence that doing things what he called the Web way would work out just fine for Microsoft. He batted away one question about netbooks moving away from Windows by suggesting 83% of the market worked for him, and for the first time went beyond his standard praise for Amazon’s cloud play by questioning how far it would scale.

In that context, doing the right thing was meant more for his internal audience in Redmond. The G-word seems to roll off Ozzie’s tongue more easily than CEO Steve Ballmer’s and certainly any comment from Bill Gates while he was in charge. With Windows 7 battened down and Azure on track for rollout this year, Ozzie seems confident he’s weathered the storms of internal politics sufficiently to slough off a dramatic challenge at the center of the desktop from Wave and its HTML 5 stalking horse as worthy competition that he and Microsoft can learn a lot from.

The “anti-Web” complexity comment may come off a little paternalistic at first glance, much as Dave Winer has taken discussions about the future arc of RSS more personally than perceptively. But Wave does highlight the deep thinking and roadwork Ozzie has done with Notes, Groove, and now Mesh, and sets the stage for a fascinating struggle over the next six months. Doing the right thing with HTML 5 will be Ozzie’s Nixon going to China moment, but in giving Google the win on the browser, he also takes some ground internally that may pay off somewhere not so far down the road with a Silverlight-based Office on Netbooks. In baseball terms, Ozzie is walking HTML 5 and pitching to Twitter Reader.