In-Depth

Think Sun

With Microsoft animosity behind him, CEO Scott McNealy explains why Windows shops should consider his alternative desktop approach.

Last April, Microsoft settled patent infringement and antitrust lawsuits with Sun Microsystems by giving Sun nearly $2 billion. Immediately the two former enemies started making nice, talking about cooperation, compatibility and common goals.

But that doesn't mean Sun will soften any of its sales pitches. In this interview with Redmond Editor in Chief Doug Barney and Editor Paul Desmond, McNealy argues for a server-and-client computing infrastructure that stands in stark contrast to what Redmond is pitching.

Redmond: Based on the 10-year cooperation agreement you recently struck with Microsoft, why should Microsoft shops look at new Sun technology?
McNealy: We are in a fairly unique position in a couple of ways. We have patent amnesty/patent peace as part of our contract. So if StarOffice and Office are familiar to each others' users and interoperable and compatible, or if the JDS [Java Desktop System] and Windows XP are interoperable and compatible and familiar, and if .NET and the Java Enterprise System Web services stack work well together, the customer doesn't have to anticipate a patent or an IP [intellectual property] battle between the two companies.

I can guarantee you that Microsoft is going to have a very different view if Red Hat or SUSE desktops step on Microsoft IP—there's no patent peace/patent amnesty and 10-year interoperability agreement between Novell and Microsoft or between Red Hat and Microsoft.

I like to say that some of our technologies are more interoperable with Microsoft than even Microsoft's are. A good example of that is StarOffice. [Editor's note: StarOffice is Sun's office productivity suite, built on the open source OpenOffice.org platform. OpenOffice is funded primarily by Sun.] We actually are more interoperable with Office XP than Office is in a bunch of ways. First of all we run on all the old operating systems—we don't cut off backward compatibility with the old versions of Windows. Secondly, we run on non-Windows and non-Mac operating systems also, including Linux and Unix and just about every desktop environment. I'm not sure how many OSes StarOffice supports, but you can get at your Office documents from basically any desktop out there.

Thirdly, we don't cut off the old file formats. So we maintain backward compatibility with the old Office file formats. I've got a bunch of customers who are using StarOffice to import their old Office documents and then export them to Office XP. Now go figure—we're the migration tool.

What we have here is choice but not unlimited choice. Customers can use Office and StarOffice, they can use JDS and Windows XP, they can use Windows Server and Solaris on their x86 boxes—in fact all of our Intel and Opteron boxes are certified to run Windows and Solaris and our desktop Opteron workstations are certified to run Windows and the Java Desktop System.

If you are using .NET, the Java Web Services Stack that will be the most interoperable, compatible, familiar and certified will be the Java Enterprise Systems Stack—not [IBM] WebSphere.

So what this provides is for Microsoft customers who want to have a bidding situation. A bidding process with one bidder is called monopoly pricing, a bidding situation with two is like a boxing match, a bidding situation with everybody involved is kind of like a bar room brawl. Customers kind of like having choice but are a little bit leery of unlimited choice—like which version of Linux, which version of Red Hat, which version of free do I choose?

We've seen a lot of cases where IT pros have played the Linux card, but never really intended to use Linux. It sounds like you're talking about are real, viable alternatives.
We'll send some of the fun facts about StarOffice in terms of the OpenOffice/StarOffice downloads and real customers (see "StarOffice/OpenOffice Facts and Figures"). As for JDS, which is the full desktop environment, China has adopted it, as well as Japan's MITI [Ministry of Industry and Trade], the National Health Service, the Israeli government, and universities and corporations around the world.

And look at the Java Enterprise System. Most analysts are predicting we will be over 400,000 annual employee subscribers at $100 per employee per year for our Web Services Stack. Clearly the Java Web Services Stack has done very, very well relative to any other Web services stack, including .NET.

So there is real product coming out of Sun. And then again our Opteron and SPARC and Intel product line scales up, out and sideways—anyway you want. There is a pretty powerful $12 billion-plus computer company to support all this with a nearly $2 billion R&D budget. This is not chump change.

Do customers that are largely focused on Microsoft today really understand and get this message from Sun?
It's hard. We don't tend to go after consumers in the small to medium enterprise. We tend to go after larger organizations. But on our Web site you can go in and buy StarOffice.

I haven't looked recently, but when we came out with the newest release, StarOffice 7, it popped to the top of the charts on Amazon. People are out there buying it and trying it and using it and liking it and giving us word of mouth. We don't do a lot of advertising for this stuff.

McNealy101

Co-founded Sun in 1982 at the age of 27.

In high school, he was considered “shy and unassuming.”

Pet Peeve: “Why, when they make chicken Caesar salads, do they cut the chicken artially, but not into bite size? If you have to saw your chicken, the salad falls all over the place.”

Favorite Food: Bacon cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake.

After his net worth exceeded $200 million, McNealy continued to live in a modest, three-bedroom house.

SOURCES: Sun Microsystems, BusinessWeek

Do you use StarOffice yourself?
I've never used Office. My desktop today is a full Microsoft-familiar desktop.

The only difference between the way my desktop looks and yours is that in the upper left hand corner where it says 'My Computer,' mine says 'This Computer.' That's because it may not be my computer so it's always 'This Computer,' so we're more accurate. Then in the lower left-hand corner I think your machine says 'Start,' while mine says 'Launch.' There is very little new user training that we need to do on this Java desktop.

When I hit on the browser I don't get IE, I get Mozilla, and when I hit on the personal productivity suite I get StarOffice, which is more compatible with Office, instead of Office. And we have the Sun instant messaging answer and we use the Mozilla mail tool and all the rest of it and we have an open source implementation of Outlook. I can run MPEG files and I can run Real Network's media players and Flash and Adobe and all that other stuff, so there's lots of capability. The only thing I can't do on my desktop is run Windows apps but there are no applications inside of Sun that need Windows anyhow, and there's no applications at eBay or Amazon or Yahoo or Google that need a Microsoft desktop either so I don't feel very crippled.

Are you saying that the rise of the Internet makes the Windows client less important?
In fact it [the Windows client] hinders you. I talk to customers all the time and I explain to them that if your internal applications aren't 100 percent acceptable from the Mozilla, Firefox or Opera browser, or even the cell phone browser, then you are absolutely restricting access to those applications for your employees, customers and constituents—I don't know anybody who 100 percent of the time has a Microsoft client connected to the network. Yahoo, AOL, eBay and Amazon have all figured out that everyone has a Java browser—that is the one ubiquitous application out there and that is what you make sure your stuff runs in.

It sounds like you're talking about a less-expensive form of computing that might be attractive to those in lesser developed countries who just don't have the money to pay for full-blown Windows PCs .
Absolutely. The beauty of the Java Desktop System, which is based on community developed software [with Sun additions], is, one, we price it very, very, very, very aggressively; two, we indemnify you against SCO, Microsoft, Kodak or anybody else, as opposed to the open source gang that does not indemnify you. Can you imagine China adopting open source software having just joined the WTO [World Trade Organization] and then having the Microsoft CEO send George Bush over to say, 'Hey, you're using Microsoft [intellectual property] without indemnification.' They just don't want to be thought of as stealing a U.S. company's [intellectual property]. I think that's one of the reasons they went with the Java Desktop System—because we provided indemnification.

Scott McNealy

"There's zero administration, no viruses and much lower costs."

But you're right. The Java Desktop System not only runs on the standard, off-the-shelf, volume commodity-priced Intel desktop hardware, but it also runs on the back-end as a server-based desktop for thin client computing. So you get the same application environment, the same user interface, and the same software basically, one of two ways: either you can host it locally on your own personal mainframe called a laptop, or you can host it on the server and just beam it down to whatever display you are at in thin client computing.

I'm sitting here in front of a SunRay. It's about a 15-watt device and when the power cycles it goes on and off like the lights in my house, but the server room continues to run because its got battery backup so I never lose my desktop. I may lose access while the power's out, but I don't have access to my PC when the power goes out either, really—if I'm not connected to a network, who cares?

So there's zero administration, no viruses, and much lower costs. I don't ever upgrade my thin client. It's like upgrading your TV—there's no 'there' there to upgrade—it's just a keyboard, display, speaker, microphone and a mouse and the content is the upgraded component. So yeah, it's a very different computing model. But the retraining effort is very small as long as you're not doing a Windows client-based application. If you are using the browser, using Web content, and using standard Microsoft productivity apps, that sort of thing, then it's a nice alternative.

What are some of the upcoming Java desktop milestones we should look for?
It always happens slower every year than you think and then after five years it has come way farther than you ever thought it would. It's just one of those kind of evolutions that I'm not sure I can predict.

The thing I like to talk about is how 10 to 12 years ago 100 percent of your desktop computing was done locally on your Windows desktop and all the MIPS that you consumed were either local in-house server application MIPS or local in-house desktop PC application MIPS. Today, think about in your job personally, how much time do you spend in the browser going out over the network using [computing resources that your company doesn't own]?

What do you think you spend, maybe 70 percent to 80 percent of your time cruising the Internet? Now you're probably low because you're a content creator and you're using Microsoft Office a lot. [Then there are] those of us who don't use personal productivity suites because we are content consumers, not content creators. You have to understand you [as magazine editors] are a very rare 2 percent of the world as content creators and 98 precent of us are content consumers. Content consumers almost never use Office and the most we create are e-mails and instant messages and voice mails and an occasional picture—none of which really you need anything other than the browser to go deal with. Today, many users are spending 98 percent of their time not using their local OS but rather just using the browser to go access somebody else's server-based environment.

What does this mean for the future of Longhorn, which is the exact opposite of what you describe—it's a larger client with more and more functions built into the desktop operating system.
I am not the right guy to ask because we have taken exactly the opposite   approach—that the network is the computer not the personal mainframe.

Where does the whole thin client movement stand? How much momentum is there behind it?
You might have heard about our dollar-per-CPU-hour utility. We put this big grid up on the network called the N1—which is in four digits now in terms of the number of processors—and we are making it available to users on a dollar-per-CPU hour basis. In other words, you go to our Web site, log in and give us a name, address, phone number, e-mail address and purchase order or a credit card number, and we'll give you an IP address. That IP address corresponds to a Solaris 10 container running on Opteron and SPARC computers that we set up in this grid. You have access to this container for whatever hours you reserve. There is a minimum of four hours and you can run Linux, Unix and Java applications to your heart's content. It is essentially unlimited—I think we give you 20MB of memory and a gigabyte of storage or something like that in your container and you can use it for as long as you reserve it for, at a dollar-per-CPU hour. Now that's pretty interesting in the sense that all of a sudden you can use it and then lose it. You don't have to pay depreciation. Now we're offering CPU hours, and gigabyte months. The next piece we're going to offer is desktop weeks.

So imagine I were to host on the N1 Grid a Java Desktop System desktop for you with browser, StarOffice, mail and calendar, an instant messaging client with a mail box and a handle for your IM, and a personal Web page with exactly what newspapers and magazines and other things that you wanted syndicated in through your custom portal.

I'm making the numbers up, but say you committed to a $20-per-month subscription for two years, and I'll give you a SunRay for free, and all you have to do is plug it into your broadband network, stick the smart card in that I give you that will roam the network and find that IP address where your desktop exists. Then I will beam that desktop to whatever thin client you're at, the one at your house or even the one at your buddy's house. All you have to do is carry your card with you and authenticate yourself. I'll beam your desktop and I'll run and operate, upgrade, debug, delouse, enhance and operate and depreciate and house your desktop in the server out over the broadband network 24x7 for a fixed fee per month. Kind of interesting, huh?

Scott McNealy

"If you do have Windows you can use a server-based Windows environment and serve it up to a thin client environment as well as [Java Desktop System]. That's a big win."

Are there people testing that out right now?
A dirty little secret is that I am sitting here at home in front of my SunRay and my speaker phone. I took my smart card out of my desktop SunRay at the office, drove home and put it in the SunRay here. Within three seconds it found my desktop, which I believe is running in Colorado, and beamed it to my desktop. It was identical to where I left it off when I pulled my card out at the office. Now I can go into the kitchen and my desktop will now get beamed out of the kitchen SunRay, or I can go into the bedroom to the SunRay back there and I can beam to there, or I can go to my house down in Pebble Beach and put my card in there and it will roam the SBC network and beam it down there.

One of the things we are building is based on gutted laptops. We take the Intel chip out, the DRAM, the disk drive, the CD and the floppy. We take out all the Microsoft software and we put this little SunRay paint chip in there that just takes the rendered bits from the server that are spewed down the network and paints the bits up on the screen in the right order. Using WiFi or a 3G phone, I can now have a wireless SunRay, and I don't have to be on the broadband network. I can be on the wireless broadband network. And I can give my buddy my thin client SunRay laptop and he can put his card in and all of sudden it becomes his SunRay.

How do you get IT pros who are used to buying Microsoft's latest server operating systems and desktop systems to think about Sun?
We talk to very well-read and respected magazines and explain this all to them so they can tell the world there is a better way.

We didn't have answering machines in the old days, and then we all got a home answering machine and it was all the rage. All of sudden now we all have cell phones and we have service provider-based answering machines and it just doesn't make sense to have a home answering machine anymore. You just can't get at it easily from everywhere, and it isn't as reliable and scalable. Why would you do your own desktop when you could have SBC do it for you?

How well is the desktop concept you describe catching on with the enterprise?
We just introduced in [December] the broadband version of SunRay. In the past you needed a SunRay on a corporate network or a school network. Now it works great over DSL. I am working on DSL from SBC and I notice no difference in response time versus when I'm in the office. The win here is huge and it's just now available.

A couple of things are new. One is that StarOffice is a legitimate—in fact a more than legitimate—contender to Office. The Java Desktop is now a patent peace/patent amnesty, familiar alternative to the Windows user interface, and the browser is now the dominant and in fact often the only required desktop application other than Office or StarOffice. Broadband is ubiquitous now and we have a broadband version of the SunRay.

So think about the power eBay user—there's a whole bunch of people who just make money doing eBay—that's their only job. All they need is a browser—that thin client would be the perfect environment—they don't need a Windows environment to do eBay. Or just think about somebody who just wants to do Amazon shopping or just wants to use Google and Yahoo maps and all the rest of it.

My boys just play games on a SunRay. We don't have an Xbox. There are lots of great Java games and they just play on the browser. Now granted you don't get the high-def blood and guts and gore—but they still waste many an hour in the Java browser without making mom or dad throw up when they walk by.

Scott McNealy and Steve Ballmer
(Click image to view larger version.)

That sounds like a consumer play.
I call it a PC companion in the home—not the PC replacement.

But is it a consumer play?
Sure it is. Let's say you've got a PC already, you've got a Windows XP machine back in your study. Why not also, since you've got broadband anyhow, why not put a Sun PC companion in the kitchen and maybe one in the guest bedroom or one in the family room?

Do you see the SunRay catching on in the enterprise?
Definitely. The SunRay is actually starting to accelerate in terms of its growth rates. The Department of Defense Information Systems Group has announced that by the year 2007, 70 percent to 80 percent of their desktops are going to SunRay. There are universities, high schools and elementary schools around the world that have adopted this technology. Call centers and corporations all over the place have used these where they have a dedicated usage environment—such as the factory floor, or the call center or the trader desk where you don't need general purpose Windows application capability. That's why I call it a PC companion as opposed to a PC replacement. It doesn't replace those environments, but if you don't need Windows desktop application capabilities, then it makes a wonderful alternative.

Having said that, we are also developing and implement today the ability to run Windows on your SunRay as well as JDS on your SunRay. This is an important concept. Even if you do have Windows you can use a server-based Windows environment and serve it up to a thin-client environment as well as JDS. That's a big win. It helps people migrate to a thin, secure-client computing environment.

Could you talk about the way you are competing and cooperating with Microsoft today?
There are lots of areas where we are cooperating and collaborating on interfaces, interoperability and certifications, starting with directory and single sign-on. You'll see lots of areas of collaboration and cooperation going forward.

And there's still a bit of good, old-fashioned competition?
Just because we both are putting the accelerator on the right side of the brake doesn't mean we aren't going to go out and try and compete like crazy. We are going to do things like that and while they might be unique to Sun and Microsoft, at least you get choice if not unlimited choice. That's where we are working with them and we'll still compete like crazy.

I think the problem is that IBM is not a part of this conversation, nor is Oracle, Red Hat, SUSE or Novell.

If I'm a Windows shop looking at Windows Server 2003, why should I consider Solaris instead?
There are a lot of [reasons] for Solaris to be your print, file and Web services server environment. One is the [free] license for Solaris; two, it's open source; three is containers; four is 64-bitness; five is the security features of trusted Solaris; six is DTrace—the tuning and testing capabilities. There's also the Java Web Services Stack for $100 per employee per year with an unlimited right to use. It scales way up and it runs on Intel Opteron and SPARC—there's no other OS out there [like it].

You really only have three choices if you are looking at a server OS these days: Windows, Solaris and Red Hat. Fundamentally those are the only three OSes that are growing and gaining share and doing well out in the marketplace in terms of applications capture and all the rest of it. I would encourage all users to take a very, very, very hard look at Solaris 10 on x86 technology today. I think you'll see in terms of price/performance, safety, security, reliability, scalability, self-healing, open source, pricing, support model—it's without equal right now. It is the best OS on the planet.

It sounds like you've answered that question before.
Well, I get paid very little money to do what I do here.

What's your take on McNealy's desktop idea? E-mail your feedback to Barney or Desmond: dbarney@redmondmag.com and pdesmond@redmondmag.com.

More Information

StarOffice/OpenOffice Facts and Figures:

  • StarOffice and OpenOffice.org combined: 43 million cumulative downloads
  • More than 26,200 StarOffice and OpenOffice.org developers are subscribed to mailing lists
  • StarOffice is distributed and available in more than 40 countries.
  • StarOffice-OpenOffice come bundled with all top Linux distributions including RedHat, SuSE, Mandrake, Debian and Fedora.
  • Forrester Research found that 9 percent of North American companies are using OpenOffice with that number expected to reach 13 percent soon.
  • Key StarOffice wins: Italy: Banche Popolari Unite (16,000 seats), Banca Popolare di Milano (8,000 seats), Carabinieri (Italian Military Police, 15K seats)   UK: Bristol Council (5,000 seats)
  • Key OpenOffice.org wins: French Administration (government): 100,000 seats; Ministry of Defence in Singapore: 5,000 seats

BuddiesAgain: The Scott and Steve Story
On April 2, 2004, Sun and Microsoft ended years of hostility with a 10-year technology collaboration agreement. The deal protects each company from patent lawsuits, calls for interoperability, and ends anti-trust charges against Microsoft over its handling of Java. In return, Sun got almost $2 billion from Microsoft.

The agreement also ended the public feud that sometimes made the Hatfields and McCoys look like the best of friends. During the press conference, many of us learned for the first time that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and McNealy (who once called Ballmer a Butthead) went to high school and college together, and were actually friends, or as they more accurately put it, "beer buddies."

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