Here comes the Sun

Scott McNealy After receiving his Honorary Fellowship, Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun Microsystems, spoke to BCS assistant editor Henry Tucker about the award, doing things differently and how we should have fewer computers. 

Before receiving the fellowship were you aware of the BCS?

I was not, so I did a little studying before, during and after and it's quite an interesting group, the Goldsmiths hall and the whole fellowship process was quite impressive.

BCS is pursuing professionalism in IT - what are your thoughts on this?

I think that [professionalism] is a valuable thing. It was a little hard to do in the old days when there were literally hundreds of different computer languages and interfaces and ABIs and all the rest of it. With a lot more consolidation and standardisation I think you can start to look for certification. The area I would encourage the BCS to focus on is some common standards and understanding on the areas of privacy and security.

I think those are the big issues. People want to feel safe and comfortable that a technician is not going to compromise their privacy, that they are going to maintain the levels of security in the systems that they work on.

IT project failure is a big subject in the UK. What have you learned from the projects you've worked on that could benefit our members?

In one word I guess it would be - Frankenstein. And that is that nobody ever does to a telephone switch what they do to a computer. You would never put a Novell directory and a VERITAS file system, a BEA app server and some open source operating system on a telephone switch and expect it to work. And the multi-vendor, heterogeneity, the custom Frankenstein, that most people build into their applications and data environments, is pretty stunning.

They may get version 1.0 to work with a lot of testing and certification, but there's no such thing as a version 2.0 and the barrier to exit what they've created just becomes too prohibitive. 

Looking back on the 25 years since you started Sun, is there anything you would do differently given the chance?

Most of it. On the one hand probably just about everything I did I'd do a little differently. On the other hand given the chance to do it all over again, differently or just the way it happened, I'm thrilled with how it happened and I have no quibbles with it. I often fantasise about when the Sun stock was totally overpriced, having sold all my stock and waited for it to resettle to reasonable valuation and then take the company private myself. That's a fantasy I think about often, but other than that I have no quibbles - it's been wonderful.

And as you said in your acceptance speech you're more than happy to have gone down the open source route?

Yes, sure, it's a better way to sleep.

BCS has just celebrated its 50th anniversary. What developments in computing and IT do you think were the most exciting, the most ground-breaking or memorable in the last 50 years?

I don't know if it's within 50, but the transistor is the biggest one. In the last 25 to 26 years, since Sun got started, I would have to say it's a tie. One is open source software, the whole concept of sharing, and the second would be HTML, the browser and Java all creating the web opportunity.

Which past discovery would you have liked to have made yourself?

I sit down every day and think about why didn't I think about selling words in an auction like Google. Let's just sell every word in the English language for the highest bidder.

The IT industry as a whole has the image of being nerdy or geeky which doesn't appeal to some people. What should the industry be doing to improve its image?

I don't really worry about it, I think that there are enough role models despite all the protestations to the contrary. There are enough successful role models in the history of the computer industry that smart people ought to feel just fine going into IT.

Nobody would say that the following are movie star calibre but Bill Gates, and Steve Balmer, Larry and Sergei - the Google boys - Steve Jobs and Ken Olson, myself - none of us are what I'd call the opposite end of nerdy. But we've all done alright and are role models and are attracting bright people. It might not be in the US or Britain but I'll bet the smart kids around the world are very excited about this.

Is anyone on that list a particular role model for yourself or is there someone else?

There's no one person from whom I like to choose the best characteristics to emulate. There are things about Jack Welsh that I try to emulate, there are things that I like about Steve Jobs that I try to emulate and they couldn't be two more different people in the world. Then there are people on my board who have brought an enormous amount of role models to me - people like Ken Oshman, and Jim Barksdale and John Doerr. So there's lots of role models but no single character.

What recent developments by others have impressed you most?

The thing that I think is the most dynamic in the technology space is broadband wireless. The fact that it can go up so fast, so cost effectively and give you such mobility. And what's happening with the telephone handset. That's the new way to bridge the digital divide. That's the way that people are getting connected now.

What are the biggest issues / challenges computing needs to face now and in the near future?

Going back to the privacy and security thing, it's all about knowing who's who, what's what and who gets access to what. I think that's the biggest single challenge for anybody who's going out on to the web, or presenting services out on the web - you've got to know who's who, what's what and who gets access to what.

It's all built around identity management, authentication, access management and conditional access.

You've said in the past that you strongly believe in networking and I believe you once said that in five or so years people won't have iPods but that they will access their music from their cell phones. With the release of the iPhone do you still think this is the case?

A long time ago someone once said that the network is the computer and I guess we still believe that. I think ultimately the networks will be strong enough so that that you won't have to store the movies you want to watch on your set top box, nor the TV programmes that you want to watch. Having one copy of the World Cup finals available to be streamed to anyone what wants it, when they want it, as opposed to having three billion copies sitting on set top boxes around the world. That's got to be more cost effective to stream one, two or three copies.

Ultimately the network will allow us to get a lot more efficient. Bandwidth will be the next big breakthrough, but then it always is.

How do you feel about the media's approach to IT? Do you feel it gets a fair press?

I worry less about the media and what they are writing than I do about the media and what it is going to do to them. I think the media is one of the most challenged industries and is facing one of the biggest transformations of any industry. YouTube has really impacted network TV, eBay has challenged classified ads and bloggers have challenged reporters.

So when you look at what ubiquitous networking, publishing and subscribing has done and what Google is doing to the advertising model, anybody's a publisher, anybody's a subscriber and anybody can be an editor and advertising has moved to a different format.

I think that's the bigger challenge.

Did you ever imagine computers would be so all pervasive as they are now, both in business and in the home?

I never realised that they would be so pervasive. I think in some ways we're going to switch back because we shouldn't have so many computers. We should have more I/O devices that connect to a computing infrastructure. Greg Papadopoulos (CTO and executive vice president of research and development) likes to talk about there being six computers in the world. Every device we have will access those very large grids where our data, our content, our state and transactions will be handled so that we don't have to handle them locally. Is a thin client a computer? Not really, it's connected to the computer grid.

Mac or PC?

A Sun thin client!

Are you a geek or a nerd?

A jock!

Smartphone or iPhone?

A Blackberry because it has Java.

How would you like to be remembered?

Two ways probably. Helping to bridge the digital divide without harming the planet. And secondly as a great father and husband.

If not in IT, what would you be doing?

I'd either be trying to make the pro golf tour and losing my shirt or running a machine shop in Detroit and losing my shirt.

One piece of careers advice?

Kick butt, have fun. Be controversial but be honest.

March 2008