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Special Report: Microsoft's Ray Ozzie on software plus services

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8th May 2007
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Ray Ozzie

By Stuart Lauchlan, news and analysis editor

One of the tipping points in Microsoft’s development as a company was Bill Gates' infamous Pearl Harbour Day memo to staff, conceding he’d got it wrong over the internet’s potential as a computing platform and putting them on a ‘war-footing’. The end result was the ‘nuking’ of Netscape and the domination of Internet Explorer.

Is the firm now turning its attentions to the software as a service (SaaS) revolution? The comparisons are similar. The internet was a threat to the dominance of Windows as a platform; SaaS is a threat to the dominance of Windows as a platform. The threat is posed by start-ups in both cases – Netscape during the browser wars, the likes of Salesforce.com in the SaaS wars.

So will history repeat itself now that Bill Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer are taking SaaS seriously? Certainly there’s more of a commitment to the model than ever before – with US customers set to be on the receiving end of CRM Live for starters - and a lot of that’s being driven by Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect, who explained his vision at the recent MIX conference in Las Vegas.

For Ozzie, the forthcoming service-driven changes are only the latest in a long line. The important thing, he reckons, is not to get carried away by the ‘purists’ and the die-hard evangelists. “I've been fortunate enough to have survived five major platform shifts over the course of my career, and in each case at the beginning of an era, somebody took an extreme position,” he argues.

“And in each case, when all was said and done, it just never quite seemed to work out that way. The pendulum certainly did swing, and disruption certainly did occur for those who had their heads in the sand about the capabilities of a new technology, but in each case, as things ultimately settled out, the best solutions were integrated solutions that would bring together the best of one world with the best of the other.”

A medium for rich interaction

It’s the same, he argues, with the current debate. “The web versus the PC, or is it the PC versus the phone? Software versus service, consumers versus IT, on-premises versus hosted, centralised storage and monitoring, and auditing, and creepy behavioural analytics versus local storage, privacy, empowerment, anonymity and freedom. We'll end up with a mixture of some of this and some of that, a mix that will give individuals a vast array of choices for software and service consumption, a mix that will give businesses a vast array of choices for software and service deployment.”

The shift to SaaS will by necessity complicate user responses to the web, he notes, but this is no bad thing. “Since the early days of the web, user expectations have risen progressively higher and higher, and today you're writing complex JavaScript trying to milk the most out of specific browsers, and specific platforms,” says Ozzie.

“The extreme level of interest in pushing AJAX to its limits has validated the desire to transform the web into more and more of a medium for rich interaction. And to support that rich interaction, we've now gone well beyond AJAX through the power of browser extensions, extensions for media, and advanced controls, the rich internet application was born. More recently, we've seen the excitement about rich internet applications begin to extend outside the browser down to the desktop once again. A resurgence of interest in service connected desktop applications, applications that connect the activities on websites to local media, local documents and local applications.”

It’s not all about being online, he reckons. There’s merit to offline activities and this will continue to be the case. “Even SaaS vendors have found the need to expand their offerings to include an offline edition,” says Ozzie. “Software as a service v.1 meant the web, it meant inside a browser. The software as a service v.2 has grown to fully embrace the uniquely valuable role of the client in those scenarios, because that's what customers want, and that's what customers need in many situations. The term SAAS has for all practical purposes been expanded at this point, and now it means software and a service.”

Universal web applications

The web is an amazing thing, it's transformed the world that we live in, both on and off the screen. But the web apps of today, and the web apps of tomorrow are by necessity complicated, and fragmented across many technologies. The glass half-full viewpoint is one of amazing choice and opportunity because of all these different scenarios, building apps and solutions that were never before possible. The glass half-empty viewpoint is one of complexity, reflecting the daunting number of skills required to pursue each of these opportunities before us spanning the rich web, the rich PC and the rich device.

“It's tough to make these fundamental technology bets, languages, runtimes, tools, because all technologies bring with them a range of architectural constraints and benefits,” he continues. “Sometimes a developer needs to deliver an experience to the broadest audience possible, maybe, for example, because of an ad-supported business model. They need to make their services universally accessible across the web, even if it means sometimes having to make some user experience trade-offs when run on a device that's capable of much more interactivity or function. Today these experiences are typically delivered in browsers, and in HTML, or AJAX, or Flash. I call these universal web applications.

“At other times, knowing that the user will be spending a huge amount of time in their applications, as a tool, or knowing that it's highly interactive, or that it needs to work offline, or knowing that the user will use that app in conjunction with other desktop applications, they'll want to deliver the best possible experience that a PC or device has to offer. They'll want to go hardcore with the capabilities of that target device. I refer to these as experience-first applications.”

But whatever the case, the SaaS – or SPS – model definitely delivers. “This software plus service pattern is very powerful, and it's great for the user,” insists Ozzie. “It gives the user tremendous flexibility. We see this pattern in many of our own apps in-house, and I expect that we'll see it in many of yours. It brings together the best of the Web, the best of the desktop, and the best of the device always using the service as a hub.”

“Over the past couple of years, there's been a progressive sea change going on within Microsoft, a transformation towards services, and towards software plus services,” explains Ozzie. “Some of these changes have been readily apparent on the web. For example, we fundamentally refactored some of our MSN services into Windows Live Services: identity, contact, Spaces, mail and messaging. Services that are now in active use by more than a quarter of a billion people. These services are now composable and syndicatable, and they're now woven into a number of other Microsoft properties, such as Office Live, which offers its users Windows Live Mail, and Xbox Live which supports instant messaging across the Xbox 360 game console and the PC.

“In other areas that we really haven't talked about in great detail yet, people are cranking out some very significant things that are more infrastructure in nature, things that in some cases need substantial time to gestate before opening them up for broad consumption. Microsoft is a platform company at its core, and what we're building is a services platform; an open, interoperable foundation for software plus services that will enable you to take advantage of our economics; a platform that will make it possible for you to build, deploy and manage service-centric universal web and Experience First solutions; solutions that span the web, the PC, the phone and ultimately many other kinds of device.”

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