COMDEX: McNealy, the comedian, predicts the future

Scott McNealy had a serious message about the IT industry to deliver here today, but the chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems couldn't bring himself to deliver it until he'd cracked every gag in the book about arch-rival Microsoft.

"Anyone heard any good monopolist jokes lately?" McNealy quipped as he walked on stage at the Comdex trade show here, echoing a similar gag about lawyer jokes that Microsoft chairman and CEO Bill Gates delivered during his speech.

McNealy has long been one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft and its PC-based computing model, and the Sun chief couldn't contain his delight about a US court's recent determination that Microsoft has abused its monopoly position in the computer operating-systems market.

"I've had a pretty good couple of weeks, I don't know about you all," McNealy said, apparently to the delight of the thousands of show goers who turned out to watch him speak here.

But McNealy did find time to pitch a serious message as well: that software applications should be free, the PC is dying, and that everything and everybody will be connected to the Internet.

"It's not just workstations or servers that are getting hooked to the Internet, but everything with a digital or electronic heartbeat," McNealy said.

Information is a utility, and should be available as a service that is as easy to use and manage as the telephone and electrical power system, McNealy said. Users don't know what software runs in a telephone switchboard or a nuclear power plant - and they shouldn't care what software operates their computers, he said.

Software applications for businesses and consumers should all be managed on large servers that are managed by service providers. Users will pay to use the applications the same way they pay a water bill or a heating bill, he said.

"The new model here says there is no operating system industry and there is no applications industry - it's all going free," McNealy said.

Helped by a Sun engineer, McNealy demonstrated StarOffice, the company's productivity suite that can be downloaded for free from the Internet. More than one million users have downloaded a version of the productivity suit since it was launched a few months ago, according to McNealy.

"You all got a free copy of StarOffice -- who said there's no free lunch?" McNealy asked. "You could have paid $800 for a copy of Windows 2000 instead and helped debug it," he quipped.

Sun, of course, makes most of its money from supplying the servers that will host the "free" applications.

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