|By Roger Strukhoff||
|October 22, 2010 12:00 PM EDT||
The role of the designer at Apple and Microsoft has been a hot topic in the news recently.
First came a long interview with former Apple CEO John Sculley, who discussed the role of the designer at Apple and contrasted it favorably with Microsoft's approach.
Then came news that Microsoft's Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie was resigning, apparently because his role as designer-in-chief was marginalized in Redmond. Add to that the telling detail that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said he will not replace Ray Ozzie.
Certainly Apple has been riding an incredible wave of growth and profitability in recent years, and certainly many people have been trying to hammer nails in a coffin custom-fitted for Microsoft in recent years as well.
The Players Play On
In this context, I re-watched a fascinating interview with Messrs. Ballmer and Ozzie held last fall and conducted by Wall Street Journal reviewer Walt Mossberg. Some of the conversation was about Cloud Computing, an area in which the two Microsoft execs had sharply divergent views.
This was not the only area in which the two didn't seem to be on the same page. As the interview progressed-and Ballmer did about 80% of the talking-it became clear that Redmond's CEO and CSO had two completely different world views, almost in a literal sense, as if they came from two different planets.
With respect to Cloud Computing, Microsoft has announced and is implementing its Azure program and strategy. I've seen articles critical of Azure as presenting a very pale in contrast to what it could be or would have been had Ray Ozzie been able to carry forth his vision.
At this point, it is so very easy for us armchair quarterbacks to criticize Ballmer, to charecterize Ozzie's leaving as a mistake, not replacing him another mistake, to allege that Ballmer "doesn't get" the Cloud, and predict Redmond's ultimate doom.
Microsoft is ultimately doomed; if people keep saying this for the next 500 years, at some point, someone will be right.
What is Important?
But the question of whether Microsoft will go out of business in 2011, 2111, or 2511 is irrelevant. What is relevant is that Steve Ballmer is CEO of an enterprise with $62 billion in annual revenue. Apple has grown in recent years to approach this level, and now exceeds Redmond in the worth of its stock.
These facts are more relevant to Steve Jobs's ability to manage such a large enterprise than with Apple's competition with Microsoft. My guess is neither is inclined to be rash and do anything else to steer enterprises of this size by any other means than those that got them to where they are today. In other words, we know Steve Jobs is never going to change; Steve Ballmer isn't gonna change either, folks.
Neither spends much time obsessing about the other (the way we in the media and analyst communities do). I'm sure, however, that they both spend a lot of time obsessing about how all of the tactical approaches involved in running their respective business. It is here where the Sculley and Ballmer/Ozzie interviews enter the picture.
Steve Jobs thinks in terms of industrial design, and he is a perfectionist. Sculley says this in the interview, and his opinion is hardly revelatory. Steve first described his fascination with industrial design in an interview with Playboy magazine years ago, where he mentioned European washing machines-which load sideways, use less water, spin faster, and dry the clothes as well-as an example of what inspires him. His disdain for furniture-none of it is good enough-is well known.
Sculley goes on to describe how this obsession with design has always been implemented at Apple, in which the designers are the high priests of the org chart. By contrast, Microsoft simply doesn't have anyone in a similar role, Sculley said in the interview.
This observation seems to bear out with the elimination of Ray Ozzie's job title as he leaves the company. The title of Chief Software Architect was previously held by Bill Gates only; at the time, it seemed to be created as a way for Gates to dislodge himself from the yoke of day-to-day management while remaining influential within the company.
Initial news reports about Ray's leaving Microsoft highlighted the fact that "Ray wasn't Bill," ie, he didn't command the respect that the company co-founder did. Many in the crowd might crack wise that Not Being Bill is exactly what Microsoft needs, that it is finally time to bring some high-level design perspective to the company instead of getting it right the third time, as has been the company's history.
But no way no how would that argument go over well with Steve Ballmer. In the Mossberg interview, he was alternately cocky and earnest, but always supremely supportive of the way Microsoft has always done business and, presumably, will always do business.
When Ray Ozzie would talk about "pivoting" (I would say "adapting") current Microsoft applications for the Cloud, Ballmer would talk about how users will always want substantial processing power on their desktops.
When Mossberg would muse about whether the Apple iPad represents a new era, Ballmer would insist that the iPad is just another form factor (while at the same time seeming not to want to count its sales as part of the market share for laptop computers).
Mossberg was inquisitive about the future, Ozzie was expansive about it (when given the chance to talk), and Ballmer insistent that the future would look much like the present.
Steve also seemed to have a hardwired US-centric view of things, scorning the $50-70 annual budget he found among consumers in India, describing Malaysia as "remote" in his wondernment that the latest technology has reached this part of the world, and lamenting the loss of revenue for 60 to 70 million copies of Office that he said would be pirated in China this year.
All In or All Done?
Microsoft announced some changes to its Cloud offerings just this week, a few days after announcing Ray Ozzie's resignation, and it certainly could be that these two events are connected, if not directly related. Even though Steve Ballmer famously said Redmond is "all in" with its Cloud bet, it doesn't seem to be the case.
Where Apple continues to push the limits of product design, Microsoft seems to be hanging on, grimly, to evolving its cash cows to the Cloud as slowly as possible. Meanwhile, Google has not yet gone away.
Neither Apple nor Microsoft seem especially interested in Enterprise Cloud Computing, the land being staked out, in uniquely different ways, by Oracle, HP, IBM, Cisco, Amazon, and Google.
In contrast, both Apple and Microsoft remain focused on end-users rather than IT buyers. Who knows who will win in the end? Who knows if this is even the most important part of the Cloud?
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