Here comes the Sun

"There are a series of dynamics in the industry that are yielding some interesting disruptive opportunities." That's what Sun Microsystems Inc. software chief Jonathan Schwartz tells me backstage before his keynote at InfoWorld's Next-Gen Web Services conference two weeks ago. The amount of incremental effort to enter this market is zero."

The dynamics: Microsoft Corp.'s Software Assurance program, the phaseout of Windows NT4, and the post-Sept. 11 economic and security landscape. The target market: call centers, cost-and security-sensitive environments, government agencies, and Third World nations. The deal: a free desktop software stack for the first 100 users. The platform: Linux.

"I was with the CIO of a satellite broadcast company," Schwartz recites, "who told me his average cost was between US$600 and $700 per user, per year, on software alone." He drills down: "StarOffice isn't exactly Microsoft Excel, and Gnome isn't exactly WinXP, and Evolution isn't exactly Outlook, and Mozilla isn't exactly [Internet Explorer]. But I'm not sure your call center employees need [all of] it."

I ask how this desktop Linux strategy dovetails with Sun's low-cost Linux LX50 server bundle. "The relationship is Sun ONE -- the idea that you should write applications to Java and to Web service standards so that they can be repurposed to any device attached to the network. If you want to do that on an LX50 running Linux, great." But serving 1.5 million consumers on Linux is another story.

For developers, isn't there a disconnect between a server model based on Java and a client model based on Linux? "Linux is an operating system; it's not a developer platform," Schwartz insists. "Linux is a tactic. Java is the strategy," he continues. "Java is the architecture. It runs on the highest end carrier-grade servers, and it runs on the military grade, most secure smart card microprocessor platform on the planet."

"The one bug in the system right now," Schwartz admits, "is that, for the most part, the Java platform and the Web content worlds have diverged. It's incumbent on us in a Web services way to cause them to converge." I suggest this is reminiscent of a speech Bill Gates made years ago at a Microsoft Professional Developers Conference about bridging the gulf between the Win32 and browser worlds.

Advantage: Java Card. "We run J2ME on all the smart-card platforms. Java runs on all the set top boxes. Ninety-five percent of all microprocessor smart cards are Java Card," he crows. The one holdout is the desktop PC, the only unauthenticated network access point left.

Schwartz ticks off his prized list of secured hardware -- set-top boxes, his satellite dish, car keys, phone number. Everything except ... "My PC? I can walk up to any PC anywhere and go send a virus around. In the Defense Department, you can't do that anymore because it's associated with you."

Schwartz says the Java Card integration is key to the success of the initiative. "We're not just going to necessarily go march off and say 'good luck with this open-source software.' Ours is going to be rooted in a secure PC because that security mechanism is going to become a critical differentiator."

"The cost is going to be a big part of it, but that's a tactic," Schwartz reminds me. "The strategy is: Let's authenticate the last portion of authenticated systems, as well as add into our lineup of clients the one that's been difficult to get because the host has been a little recalcitrant." He means Microsoft.

But Schwartz insists his strategy is not specifically targeted against Microsoft, a rare and refreshing perspective for a Sun executive. "I used to be Sun's chief strategy officer," he says, "and the one thing that became evident after two years of doing that job is that strategy is by far the process of picking what you're not going to do."

Here's what he doesn't want to do: "I don't want this on Amazon. I don't want to have a consumer product. I don't want to piss off Yahoo because we didn't pick their home page as the home page on our browser. Or an infrastructure company -- we ship systems."

Here's what he does want to do: "Would I love to see Yahoo, Sprint, ComCast, and AOL Time Warner private-label these products out into their value chains? Absolutely," he affirms. "Am I going to go fight over what icon they can put on the desktop or tell them if they take off Mozilla and put on Netscape, we're not going to give it to them? Absolutely not."

I ask my favorite new question: What happens if this works? If instead of dealing with Gates, we're dealing with you -- what's the difference? "All the principal elements of the software are open-source," Schwartz answers carefully. "So if you want to take Mozilla and Evolution and Linux -- you want to do another desktop -- have at it."

What if Hewlett-Packard Co. wants to do that, I counter? "Schwartz's eyes widen. "You have no idea how opportune that question is. Wouldn't that be interesting?" Yes, it would, particularly in light of HP's deals to bundle a six-month trial version of BEA Systems Inc.'s WebLogic app server with HP-UX and partner with Microsoft to offer .Net server middleware.

As we wrap up, Schwartz turns tactical, recalling a panel where he was paired off with a Groove vice president representing .Net. "You, the guy from Groove, why do you write to the Windows platform?" Schwartz challenged. "And he said, 'Look, it's a volume platform -- it's got great technology.' " "OK," Schwartz replied, "but if there were another platform that had 2 million users, he'd say, 'Oh God, we'd ship in five minutes.' So my point is you're not loyal to .Net -- you're loyal to volume. So it's in all of our best interest to go create a volume platform."

Schwartz says he has nothing to lose, but is that tactics or strategy?

Steve Gillmor is director of the InfoWorld Test Center. You can reach him at steve_gillmor@infoworld.com.

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