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[Editor’s Note: Journalist Robert McClure, co-founder of InvestigateWest, attended the GeekWire Summit yesterday and shared this report about Ray Ozzie’s comments on the startup environment.]

As someone who came out of legacy media and is really proud that the startup I co-founded is still standing nearly three years later, I couldn’t help but feel admiration for Ray Ozzie as he talked Wednesday at the GeekWire Summit.

Ray Ozzie at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle yesterday. (Photo by Karen Ducey)

Ozzie is best known in recent years as the guy who took over from Bill Gates as Microsoft’s software chief. But he was so far ahead of the game decades ago that he, for example, helped bring out Lotus Notes in the 1980s. So he’s been around. And around and around.  And yet he’s got a startup that he’s so excited about, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm – even though he wouldn’t tell us exactly what it is that Cocomo is up to.  But, looking generally around the tech scene, he was ebullient.

“I’ve never seen anything so exciting,” the tech veteran told an audience of about 500 in downtown Seattle. “. . . We’re on the cusp of having, within a few years, a billion smart phones.”

Ozzie spoke of traveling recently to the outback of India – only to find folks there who wanted to swap messages with him on Facebook on their smart phones.

“We’re in a transition, an explosion” of new devices such as tablets, Ozzie said. “We don’t really understand all the scenarios they’re going to be used in.”

Now, this is a guy who, as GeekWire co-founder and co-moderator Todd Bishop noted, was using electronic communication when the rest of us still were picking up rotary phones. Ozzie himself remembers a day when he not only couldn’t imagine networked personal computers – he hadn’t even conceived of personal computers, period. So he’s seen it all. And yet he has this excitement about today’s technology that’s obvious to even a casual observer.

“It’s difficult, but like your first day of having your first child, (the start-up) can be anything,” Ozzie said. “It’s nothing but promise, and you’re so elated.”

His advice for people in start-ups today?

“Today’s start-up is extremely lean. You must fit into the pattern of today’s start-up environment if you’re going to be successful,” he said. “It’s always been hard and it’s still hard but the potential market is so great now. It’s so vibrant and supports experimentation in many ways.”

Lest you think it was all sunshine and roses, Ozzie was refreshingly honest about the privacy challenges that this new technology explosion poses.

“We have to be careful about what (various companies) are doing with our data,” he said. “We’re in a time when we don’t know the social norms that should be present online.”

Those might not turn out the way everyone would like, he said. But even in the pre-PC days, he recalled, he had to pay *extra* to get his name left out of the White Pages. Those kinds of systems have yet to be worked out in the current scene.

“We also need as a society to develop a regulatory infrastructure and just develop social norms that make the right tradeoffs we want as citizens,” Ozzie said.

Asked if the privacy emphasis could go too far, Ozzie answered: “I’m not worried about us being too careful.”

For more on the talk, see the Storify put together by my InvestigateWest colleague Jason Alcorn. On Twitter look for #gwsummit, and see this transcript of Ozzie’s comments.

InvestigateWest is a Seattle-based nonprofit journalism studio covering the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on the environment, public health and government accountability.

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