The Capitalist in the Penguin Suit

Never one to mince words, Sun Microsystem's CEO shares his thoughts on Linux, Java, working with the Open Source community, and of course, Microsoft.


Sun Microsystems’ relationship with the Open Source community has always been a bit of an enigma. Though the company itself was built upon Open Source software (Berkeley Unix), and has made some important and useful Open Source contributions, its refusal to completely open up Java, and its sometimes disparaging remarks about Linux have led it to butt heads with Open Source developers on more than one occasion. Still, despite the somewhat checkered history, Sun has recently begun to embrace Linux in a much more public fashion. Leading the charge is CEO Scott McNealy.

But while Sun is joining a long list of companies that have announced their support for Linux, they are definitely putting their own unique spin on the subject. While most Unix vendors have been eager to present a friendly face towards the Linux community in public, McNealy has downplayed its importance. He mockingly refers to IBM’s altruistically hued “Peace, love and Linux,” marketing campaign as “Peace, dope, and Linux.” But all kidding aside, when McNealy talks about Microsoft, he sounds like one of the Linux faithful. Linux Magazine’s Adam Goodman and Robert McMillan recently had the opportunity to meet with McNealy at Sun’s Santa Clara campus.

LINUX MAGAZINE: Why did Sun decide to brand its own version of Linux?

SCOTT McNEALY: Ultimately we believe that the brand isn’t so important. You have 100 microprocessors in your new automobile. Any idea what brand of OS those run? There’s a microprocessor in that camera over there, and in that little desktop speaker phone. Nobody knows what the brand of the OS is and nobody cares.

Ultimately, that’s the question I find fascinating. We tell people, “Don’t write to Solaris. Don’t write to Windows. Don’t write to Linux. Write to the Sun ONE platform. It’s write once, run anywhere. It’s scalable from smart card to supercomputer; runs on every microprocessor, runs on every device; has no viruses; one software distribution and provisioning mechanism; one development environment; one security model. It’s a much better platform to write to, longer term. How you make that platform wiggle, whether it’s Sparc/Solaris, Linux/x86, or even Microsoft, we don’t particularly care. But to us Sun ONE is the more important brand.

LM: But you did feel the need to come out and publicly proclaim that Sun is supporting Linux now. And IBM and HP and a bunch of your competitors do seem to feel that the brand is an issue. So it isn’t quite the same thing as the brand of the OS that’s running on a cell phone.

McNEALY: Isn’t that great? If our strategy wasn’t controversial, if we weren’t doing something that was a little different, if we didn’t have a little different perspective or take on the thing, if everybody thought this was exactly the right way to go, we’d have no chance of making money. Because if everyone is doing it, you can’t differentiate. If you can’t differentiate yourself, you can’t charge margins. If you can’t charge margins, you can’t make any money. You don’t make any money, you’re not going to be here. You’re not working for free. I think you guys ought to adopt the Open Source model and you guys ought to write for free.

LM: Well, that’s an interesting point. So how do you see the Sun Linux distribution being differentiated from others?

McNEALY: If you want to be so last millenium and write to an ABI that is compiled to a specific version of an OS and a specific version of a microprocessor, if you want to do that, we’ll offer you a standard Linux ABI — whatever standard means in the Linux world — but we will recommend very strongly that you write at one level up. And that is to the Sun ONE architecture.


LM: Do you ever give any thought to what role Linux might play in the next five years at Sun Microsystems?

McNEALY: It’s a kernel; it’s a component. I don’t really think about what DRAM’s going to do, or a disk controller. It’s another component that we’re going to use as a building block. Sun has two basic platforms. Sun ONE and N1, which is how we’re going to manage all these blades, and I don’t particularly care whether it’s on a Linux x86 blade or a Windows x86 blade, or a Sparc/Solaris blade, or an embedded chip blade. They’re components that only my engineers should worry about. My customers should never have to worry about it.

LM: I think one of the things that people in the Open Source community lose sight of when they talk about Sun is the fact that Sun has contributed a number of very successful Open Source projects…

McNEALY: We’ve been a huge player in the Open Source movement all along, in terms of our partnership with Netscape on Mozilla, in terms of what we’re doing with OpenOffice.org, in terms of what we announced at JavaOne this year with Apache. From a licensing perspective, Sun’s been very innovative to protect our shareholders yet protect the community and the community’s investments at the same time. Certainly around interfaces, nobody’s been more open than Sun for the last 20 years, three months and five days, or however long we’ve been hanging out. I think we’ve got a fairly unblemished record, and I think we get pretty much straight A’s from the open interface advocates out there in the marketplace.

LM: …Well what I wanted to ask you was, how strategically important do you think the Open Source developer community will be as these higher level APIs get standardized?

McNEALY: I think there’s always a matriculation from private interface — although we never do closed interfaces — to open interfaces, to Open Source eventually. You know, nobody even thinks about the wheel as being IP [intellectual property]. And I think that’s just what’s happening. Today, you see IBM and Microsoft trying to get together and create RAND [Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory licensing] as their new strategy, and that ought to be making everybody in the Linux community very, very nervous about what they’re trying to do. RAND: Reasonable — whose definition of “reasonable?” — and Non-Discriminatory licensing. Have you ever heard of Microsoft doing non-discriminatory licensing? They won’t even let us into WS-I [Web Serivces Interoperability Organization] — that’s how non-discriminatory they are.

So I think that just over time, things become standardized and coagulated. Maybe at one point Ford owned putting the brake pedal to the left of the accelerator, but it wasn’t in Ford’s best interests to be the only company with the brake pedal to the left of the accelerator. The world would go in a different direction, and they’d be stuck.

LM: In the Open Source space there’s a sense that Sun’s desire to control the Java APIs has interfered with the Open Source development methodology and the freedom of Open Source developers.

McNEALY: I’ll tell you what Sun’s desire is. We want to make sure things move along quickly, because if we don’t, then the Microsoft monopoly takes over. We’ve moved the Java architecture into more places, and broadened that API in a compatible open, fair way, getting the best minds in the universe working on it. We’ve got JavaCard 2.2 out now. We’ve got J2ME on just about every device you could think of, including this phone [points to his cell phone], we’ve got Sony Playstation getting Java, we’ve got J2SE on the desktop, and if we can get a “must carry” [Sun hopes that one of the results of the Microsoft antitrust ruling will be a "must carry" provision, requiring Microsoft to ship the Java runtime with Windows. --ed.] out of Microsoft through legal means, then that would be a wonderful step forward. J2EE on the server side basically runs on every app server except one, and that is Microsoft’s.

So we have taken Java from smart card to supercomputer and every device in between, and done that in less than six years, and in an open and fair way, where people feel like they have been able to contribute. I don’t believe we could have moved at that speed by going to the Linus Torvalds model, or the IEEE model.

The second reason why we haven’t just done the peace, love, and dope commune strategy around this thing is that if Microsoft wants to go in and grab the Linux brand, then subvert it and drag it into a proprietary copyright position, they could and they would. And at some point that might actually be their strategy. Now who’s going to sue them? That was the whole reason we were able to go in and protect Java. Because when they took a cup of Java, took the caffeine out and added three drops of poison, known as Windows proprietary extensions, what did you have? You didn’t have Java anymore, you had Windows. And we were able to go in and sue them, stop them. The judge ordered them to cease and desist and to pay us $20 million for our troubles. All I want to do is make sure that as long as I haven’t been hit too hard in the head by a hockey puck, that we can keep our interfaces open, drive compatibility, and drive innovation, at the rate at which we think we need to do it to compete against Microsoft.

LM: A minute ago, you were talking about the wheel as intellectual property. So I guess there comes a point at which those battles are fought and you can be more open with the standards.

McNEALY: Right, but if you open them, then you create an opportunity for subversion. First, Microsoft took the JVM out of their release, so that 7+ million Web sites are not available to users of Windows XP. Now what kind of consumer innovation is that? Here’s 7+ million active Web sites out there that you can’t view now from your Windows XP machine. Then they put in their default firewall that will let in macros — Microsoft Office and Windows CaptiveX macros — and will block out Java applets. Now, we all know that Java applets have no viruses. It’s been proven. It’s the first antiseptic computing environment that we’ve had to that level. And Microsoft blocks it. It’s kind of like letting in Ebola and Anthrax and blocking out Penicillin. Now when we have that kind of environment, I do not yet feel the world is safe to just say, “alright I trust everybody,” because I honestly don’t trust Microsoft to do the right thing.

LM: What is Sun’s competitive advantage in controlling the Java standard?

McNEALY: If we hadn’t done Java, and who knows how the world would have worked out — maybe something else would have come along — but if we hadn’t done Java, I fear that the encroachment of Windows into everything, from smart cards to cell phones to set top boxes with WebTV and UltimateTV, as well as into automobiles and into the server space, would have been just far greater.

Today there are really only two major development communities: The Open/Unix/Java/Jini/Jxta/Sun ONE developer community, and the Microsoft developer community. Some of the best things that have happened to Linux, as far as I can tell, are the Java Virtual Machine, the Java app server, and StarOffice. And without those, how interesting are the platforms?

If people write to Windows, then they’ve got to buy Wintel servers and Wintel desktops and we sell nothing and we go away. All we’ve done is create a market that we can play in, but aren’t guaranteed. We give people freedom of choice. The whole premise behind Java is to open up the open market. Make the total available market for open, choice-based computing bigger than it would be if Microsoft controlled the market. We don’t make money on it.

LM: There are some people in the Open Source community who might make the argument that Sun’s desire to control Java through legal methods may almost be like the Maginot Line before World War II.

McNEALY: That’s a little emotional.

LM: But don’t you think the things you’re saying Java was designed to protect in many ways also represent the same war that Linux is now fighting?

McNEALY: That’s the defensive nature of Java. Java was also designed to allow safe network computing, to allow write once run anywhere, to scale from smart card to supercomputer, to be object oriented, modular, to drive programmer productivity. Those are all the things that nobody ever talks about that Java was designed for — not something that Sun did against something else.

People think that we’re just responding to Microsoft. I think it’s fascinating that Bill Gates had to write a memo to all his team recently saying that security is important. Duh! My employees would cuss me out for insulting them if I wrote them a memo like that. We’ve been selling to the NSA and the CIA and all those kinds of folks for years, and we understand that security is important. James [Java creator James Gosling -- ed.] built security into this thing.

The second thing that I think is fascinating — I mean, if you want to see a bad programming architecture and model — under oath Microsoft executives are saying, “If you pull a simple little program like a browser out,” — a browser! An HTML rendering engine — “You pull that out of my machine and Windows will fall down, blow up, and we’ll have to pull Windows off the market.” Under oath they’re stating, “we have such crappy software architecture with Bill Gates as our software leader, that we’ve got the biggest hairball welded mess of coagulated garbage, that if you pull a simple little app out, I’ve got to pull the whole product off the market. How embarrassing for them that they are admitting that under oath.

LM: I’m sure there are a lot of people in the Linux community that would agree with you on that subject. So why do you think that Sun has gotten such a bad rap from Open Source developers?

McNEALY: I don’t know that we have. I think we’ve contributed tons of IP. We’ve contributed tons of innovation. See, there are multiple levels of licensing, and the beauty of the market economy is that you can play in all of those spaces, and for some things, open makes sense, and for others, closed makes sense. It just depends on what you want to do and what your needs are.

We’re going to participate in all of the spaces, and we’re going to compete in all of them. It’s just that I’m a believer in capitalism. I’m a believer in market economies. I’m a believer in intellectual property ownership, and I’m a believer in charging for IP so you can fund R&D.

We’re spending about $2 billion a year in R&D; we’re a top-20 R&D spender worldwide: any industry, any topic, any anything. And without some way of charging some folks for something there’s no way to maintain that investment. I don’t mind moving the model around and charging for services or charging for hardware or charging for something else. I don’t particularly care where we get the revenue, but I certainly need to generate a return for my shareholders.

LM: Have you ever met Linus?

McNEALY: No. I don’t think so. I hope I haven’t, because then he’d probably be insulted if I didn’t remember him.

LM: Would you hire him to work at Sun?

McNEALY: In a heartbeat. I think he really understands how to build communities. And that’s what it takes today. I think we’ve built some very large communities around Sparc, around Solaris, around Sun ONE, around N1, around our whole network computing model, and we think we’re going to be a very major player in the Linux community.

LM: Do you personally have an interest in talking to the leaders in the Open Source community?

McNEALY: The beauty of it is it’s mankind versus Microsoft. How do you meet with mankind? I think the best way we can meet with them is by leading with open interfaces, leading with contributions to the Open Source community, leading by innovating on licensing maneuvers that allow us to continue to invest yet still participate in a collaborative and cooperative way. I don’t quite know how much more we can do while still protecting our shareholders and protecting our investment, which we have to do. Somehow… Linus, nobody is asking him to Open Source all the IP from his company.

LM: Transmeta, you mean?

McNEALY: Yeah.

LM: Well he’s not the chief executive officer of Transmeta.

McNEALY: But he takes a salary. I hate that. It would really be cool if all of my 39,000 employees would go “open salary” on me.

LM: Well, speaking of Open Source developers, one of the things we’ve heard from the JBOSS team [an Open Source J2EE application server --ed.] is that they’ve had a hard time getting J2EE certification. Do you think it’s important to have a certified Open Source J2EE implementation?

McNEALY: We’ve already got one. It’s called the Sun ONE app server. It’s certified. Do I think it’s important? I don’t know what that means.

LM: Well the JBOSS guys say that their product has a lot of appeal at the low end, so they see people evaluating .NET and JBOSS, but that there’s some reluctance to go with JBOSS because it’s not certified.

McNEALY: I think it’s important to have a community process, open specs, and choice for the customer, absolutely. How that gets implemented, I don’t particularly care.

I actually think we need more revenue in the J2EE space, so that we can do more advertising to get the message out, because right now the world is getting blitzed with Microsoft advertising, and promotion and branding and propaganda, and big lies, and that’s why they’re evaluating .NET. Not because it’s a better product.

So potentially you could make an argument that the Open Source thing is just screwing up all the revenue models and preventing us from doing the advertising. Because it isn’t always the best technology that wins, sometimes it’s just who advertises more. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bill Gates is sitting up there laughing his butt off because the Open Source community is cutting the legs out from under all the R&D and promotion efforts of all the open interface strategies — not open implementation, but open interface strategies.

Who knows, Linux Magazine may be the best support for the best attack strategy Microsoft’s ever had.

Robert McMillan is Editor at Large for Linux Magazine. He can be reached at bob@linux-mag.com

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