Ray Ozzie hasn’t been in the news much since late 2010, when he left Microsoft after it became clear he was never going to become the company’s chief executive.
Now he’s joining the board of Hewlett-Packard, the company announced today.
Until his 2010 departure from Redmond, Ozzie had spent several years as Microsoft’s chief software architect, a role that founder Bill Gates held until that point. Ozzie came to Microsoft through the company’s $150 million acquisition of Groove Networks, which Ozzie founded, in 2005. Groove later became Microsoft SharePoint Workspace, which has since been discontinued. (Correction: Ed Bott and Romit Mehta informed me that SharePoint Workspace lives on as SkyDrive Pro, a file-syncing and file-sharing service, and that the executable is even named groove.exe.)
Before Groove, Ozzie was one of the key architects of Lotus Notes, one of the most successful software packages of the client-server era. It was powerful and flexible, but also huge, bloated, and prone to all kinds of problems interoperating with Internet services. (The last time I wrote about Lotus Notes, which is now owned by IBM, I figured it was all but dead, but several angry Notes developers contacted me to say how great it still is. Whatever. I’m just glad I don’t have to use it any more — and neither do most of the people I know, a big change from the 1990s.)
Lotus also produced Lotus Symphony, an office productivity suite whose main distinction was that it’s not Microsoft Office. IBM acquired Lotus for $3.5 billion in 1995, and along with Notes, it still sells Lotus Symphony, believe it or not.
Prior to Notes, Ozzie contributed to the early spreadsheet program VisiCalc, the very first “killer app” and one that helped launch the PC revolution in the 1980s.
Ozzie is widely revered as a very smart guy, and rightly so, since he contributed much to the biggest computing revolutions of the 1980s and 1990s. But Groove was frankly a flop, he didn’t accomplish much at Microsoft after the acquisition of Groove Networks, and he’s been basically off the radar screen since then. (He is listed as the founder of Talko, a startup still in stealth mode.) So what does Ozzie know that HP needs?
Let’s look at the other two directors that HP appointed today: Robert Dennett, the former president of Discovery Holding Group and, before that, president and CEO of Liberty Media; and James Skinner, the former CEO of McDonald’s and current chairman of Walgreen Co. In other words, a media guy and a retail/fast food guy.
I’m no expert on corporate board selection processes, but this looks like exactly the kind of corporate boardroom mutual admiration society that HP decidedly does not need. Ozzie is the only one of the three directors appointed today who has technology industry experience, and his experience is in software, not in hardware, infrastructure, and consulting services, where HP’s strength lies. What’s more, his main accomplishments in the past 8 years have been writing memos.
HP badly needs to refocus on its technologies and its mission, especially after its failed $10 billion acquisition of Autonomy led to the disgrace and departure of former chairman Ray Lane. But unless I’m deeply mistaken, the company is not going to get that from these three directors. I’d like to think Ozzie can help turn the ship around, but I’m not hopeful.
In other words, HP thinks it needs deep techie cred at the highest levels, and Ozzie provides a bit more of that. But his appointment means the company hasn’t yet figured out what it really needs.
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