Ray Ozzie | Behind Microsoft's Groove-iness

Interview with Ray Ozzie, founder of Groove Networks

Ray Ozzie, Microsoft CTO

Jim Sulley

Little more than a year ago, something happened that used to happen frequently in IT: Microsoft Corp. snapped up a promising company. But Groove Networks Inc. was more than just a collaboration software developer; it was increasingly well known for its government deployments, including data-sharing projects at the Defense and Homeland Security departments.

Ray Ozzie founded Groove Networks years after developing the successful groupware program Lotus Notes. Now he's a chief technology officer at Microsoft, overseeing the company's push into software as a service and Windows Live. Groove itself has become part of the Microsoft Office group. Was it a shotgun wedding? Actually, Ozzie was recognized by Microsoft as a Windows pioneer years ago, and today, he says, Groove is doing better than ever.

GCN: Microsoft sounds like it's doing everything it can to lure all remaining Lotus Notes users to Exchange. How does that make you feel?

Ozzie: Although I've got very warm feelings for the product, the team that built it, the partners who built businesses around it, and the customers invested in it, Notes was designed at its core for an earlier era. Today there is a far greater set of choices, and in some cases, a far more appropriate set of choices.

Notes was designed for the world of the early '90s'a 're-engineering the corporation' era where the mandate was to utilize technology to share information across departments within an enterprise or government organization.

In this era, before application servers and the Web, people used Notes as a Swiss Army knife of sorts to build applications of all shapes and sizes.

Fast forward to today: There is tremendous choice in powerful collaborative application development technology, and the information-sharing mandate has moved outside the walls of the enterprise.

No organization is an island; we all need to interact and interoperate in a mesh. People work together across organizations; business processes span organization boundaries.

Groove was founded on the notion that technologies and architectures of the '90s didn't meet the requirements of the new world of work. Businesses and government organizations today need to develop solutions based on standards, interoperability, decentralization and the Internet.

GCN: Even today, would you ever look at a government or other enterprise customer and think, 'You should be using Notes' or, 'You should be using Exchange'? Under what circumstances?

Ozzie: Soon after arriving at Microsoft, I had lots of people within sales and marketing asking for my advice on how to go after the Notes installed base.

I'm not sure they were completely happy when I told them this, but I said I thought they would lose credibility and have dissatisfied customers if they told customers they could feasibly migrate all their Notes applications to Exchange. It's simply not credible to say so.

Notes is a very peculiar environment'and I say that endearingly. There are applications wired into that unique 20-year-old Notes application model that can't be easily ported without substantial rethinking.

For one, because most other contemporary application environments are built on relational databases rather than a Notes-like semistructured message store.

Today there are many choices of robust applications and application frameworks more appropriate for today's computing and communication environments.

In general, I advise customers to consider that the very thing that made Notes successful'its deep integration'is now the most significant aspect constraining customers.

GCN: Groove was enjoying some nice government acceptance before the Microsoft purchase. How has government reacted to the acquisition?

Ozzie: The reaction has been very positive. One of our challenges at Groove Networks was selling to large government organizations who were concerned about the long-term viability of a start-up. Now as part of Microsoft, that concern has disappeared.

For example, one of the major military branches recently approved use of Groove on all its desktops. Approval for operating on that military branch's network came in two weeks. The head of government sales for Groove told me that prior to the acquisition, we had never received clearance in less than six months. Another government CIO recently told the Groove sales team, 'We were waiting for a big company to back Groove. Now we can make a purchase.'

Overall, the reaction has probably been better than anticipated, particularly when we're able to educate government customers on the type of integration that's now possible with [Microsoft] SharePoint, and InfoPath for forms, or with Communicator for secure, instant communication.

GCN: Groove is a peer-to-peer platform. How do enterprises determine whether they want client/server, peer-to-peer or a combination?

Ozzie: Customers, either in government or private industry, don't approach the decision from a technology perspective. They'and we'approach it from a problem/solution perspective.

When I was more directly involved in selling Groove to government organizations, the need for Groove often arose because soldiers in the battlefield, or relief workers at a disaster site or researchers on the road couldn't assume they would have Internet connectivity.

As a result, they required a client-based solution like Groove that would allow them to automatically synchronize their work when they did get connectivity. Not only could that work be automatically and securely synchronized with other members of their workspace, but it could then be shared more broadly via integration with a server-based technology like SharePoint.

Now, as part of Microsoft, that's exactly how we are positioning Groove and SharePoint today. Office Groove 2007 is the rich client for dynamic team work, and SharePoint is the centralized, scalable system where that work gets published, broadly shared and searched, and integrated with structured business applications.

Together, we believe Groove and SharePoint provide the integrated collaboration environment teams and organizations need to work together and share information more effectively.

GCN: At Microsoft's Public Sector CIO Summit in Redmond, Wash., a naval doctor who used Groove after Hurricane Katrina wished there had been some way of discovering Groove workgroups so people could collaborate easier. Do you have an appreciation for his situation? Is there currently a solution to his dilemma?

Ozzie: First, I should let you know that I know Dr. [Cmdr. Eric] Rasmussen very well. He's tested the limits of Groove and other collaboration technologies in humanitarian relief situations in Iraq, in Indonesia after the tsunami, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and in civil/military exercises he's conducted. So, yes, I definitely have an appreciation for the problem he's described.

And, yes, there are technical solutions. Disaster relief presents some unique challenges, however, that are as much social as they are technological, since informal social networks are critical to effective disaster response.

The ability to discover Groove workgroups has been a requirement expressed by many of our commercial customers. I'm aware of at least one commercial customer that provides the ability to create Groove workspaces from a company portal.

The problem Dr. Rasmussen confronts is that he's focused on interorganizational coordination among the military, nongovernmental organizations and other relief organizations.

In this case, there isn't a central portal to which all these organizations refer. Nevertheless, in future disaster relief situations, someone might create a blog or wiki where Groove workspaces could be posted and Groove invitations attached. This is a great example of providing the right combination of technologies to address a problem.

GCN: Generally speaking, how would you assess government's efforts to effectively share data? Has the urgency waned?

Ozzie: Let me address your last question first. No, the urgency absolutely hasn't waned. Since 9/11, a great deal of time, energy and money has been devoted to addressing better information sharing within and among government organizations.

And again, the challenges are as much about culture and social norms as they are about technology. Many of the technologies that are being applied to cross-company collaboration in business can be directly applied to missions of defense and security.

As a result, I believe there are unprecedented possibilities for public/private partnership in helping governments address their information-sharing issues.

Wal-Mart and Dell come immediately to mind as two companies who have embraced the doctrine of John Arquilla from the Naval Postgraduate School: 'Whoever masters the network form first and best will gain major advantages.' Ultimately, I believe more effective information sharing among government organizations is largely a leadership issue.

Trust issues among individuals and organizations have to be addressed if we are to achieve the kind of cross-branch, cross-agency information sharing that the 9/11 Commission advocates.

GCN: How do you expect collaboration technologies to evolve?

Ozzie: While I've been focused on computer-supported cooperative work for almost a quarter century now, I wouldn't pretend to think that I could predict how collaboration technologies will evolve. What I can tell you is my belief that prescriptive, top-down solutions focused on information and knowledge sharing, or forcing people to somehow work together, won't be successful.

What I've found is that grass-roots approaches that leverage human behavior and connections that already exist among individuals will have a much higher likelihood of succeeding.

For example, one of the things I'm most excited about is what's happened on the Web in recent years, particularly with RSS. Data has become a platform in and of itself, and one of the really interesting things that's happening is that systems of all kinds, from SharePoint with its lists, to sales force automation and customer relationship management applications, are able to expose information that previously was bottled up.

This information is being exposed outward via very easy and open XML-based data formats. As a result, unexpected, serendipitous-type things can happen when information that's previously been contained is exposed and aggregated in ways people haven't conceived before.

GCN: Why should our government IT readers be following developments around Windows Live? Why software as a service?

Ozzie: Well, I could spend about an hour on each of those questions. But I suspect you and your readers wouldn't appreciate that. Let me net it this way: The continuing march of the fundamental ingredients of technology'processing, storage and bandwidth'have brought us to a new inflection point as we move from relative scarcity to relative abundance. Some have described this as the 'cheap revolution.'

Brought together, the latest combination of powerful computing, vast storage, and cheap and nearly ubiquitous communications is ushering in a new era for software. This new era of relative abundance is changing the way software is delivered and allowing unprecedented scale resulting from the loosely coupled connections of cheap hardware.

Combine this with the advent of XML-based programmability over the Internet that allows software to talk to other software anywhere in the world, both cheaply and understandably, and you have the makings of what I'll call a 'services wave.' Not just Windows Live, but Live software in general defines Microsoft's effort to deliver seamless, 'just works' experiences for customers through software that's designed from its inception to work in concert with Internet-based services.

By taking this holistic approach, we can better hide complexities at the seams of technologies, and deliver the kind of 'just works' experiences that individuals have come to enjoy from the fusion of XBox and XBox Live, and iPod and iTunes, to name just two examples.

GCN: Do you get a feeling public-sector clients are interested in software as a service?

Ozzie: Yes. Public-sector IT organizations are dealing with the same challenges faced by their private-sector counterparts. Their workers increasingly use multiple devices, have multiple identities, need to work more effectively across organizational boundaries and need to get work done whether at home, in the office, on the battlefield or in Starbucks.

Today, the many devices government workers have to get their work done present systems management challenges for IT, and learning curves for end users.

I believe that given this new world of work, we need to think differently and take a client/server/services approach to solutions. We're at the early stages of this transformation to solutions that 'just work' at home and in the office, and in managed and unmanaged environments.

But by taking a software-plus-services approach, I believe we can reduce training costs for end users and TCO for government organizations. The Defense Department's Net Centric Enterprise Ser- vices and efforts around real-time collaboration are a good example [of] this, whether it be in the area of enterprise instant messaging and presence or Web conferencing. And they are looking to do this across some of the world's largest organizations.

GCN: What does the Windows Live roadmap look like right now? What products will be offered in this way? When? How?

Ozzie: I prefer not to talk specifics about the product road map. To get a sense of the types of services that are on the horizon, your readers should go to ideas.live.com where they can find out more information about products such as Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Messenger or our Windows OneCare Live PC health service.

We also recently launched the beta of Office Live, a service initially aimed at [enterprises] with less than 10 employees. Your readers can learn more about that at officelive.microsoft.com.

What I can tell you is that I'm working closely with the presidents of Microsoft's three major businesses [Kevin Johnson of Platform Products and Services, Jeff Raikes of the Business Division and Robbie Bach of the Entertainment and Devices Division] and we're planning software-plus-service solutions across the breadth of segments that Microsoft addresses with its products.

Businesses, and to a lesser degree government organizations, because of information control and management issues, are increasingly considering what services-based economies of scale might do to reduce infrastructure costs.

GCN: So did you move to Seattle? And how does anyone who's never endured record stretches of rain cope? Coffee?

Ozzie: The answer to your first question is yes and no. My wife Dawna and I still have a home on the North Shore in Massachusetts. We love it there.

But I've also got a condo in downtown Seattle as I now find myself spending about 75 percent of my time in the Pacific Northwest, given meeting schedules and project coordination. Our kids are both in college, so we've been able to make this bicoastal existence work for us so far.

As for the weather, here's how I look at it: As a software engineer, you are forever dealing with tradeoffs. Add more features, miss your ship date; focus on performance, include fewer features.

It's no different with the weather. More rain or more snow? More clouds or more sun? We're enjoying both experiences and appreciating the similarities and differences of the two coasts. And yes, coffee helps. But that's true on either coast.

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