Dan Gillmor: An old geezer wrestles alligators

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I am a dinosaur. Scott McNealy told me so.

Really: I’m one of those people who still thinks it’s a good idea to carry my data around with me. Well, not all of it, but most of what I need for my work, and quite a lot of my leisure data as well, namely music in my MP3 collection.

Mr McNealy, the co-founder and longtime chief executive at Sun Microsystems, thinks my notions are quaint. My data should be as available, wherever I happen to be at the moment, as electricity.

He told me this in a recent conversation at Sun’s Silicon Valley headquarters. In a small conference room, one of the tech industry’s longest-surviving (corporately, that is) chief executives pulled out a “smart card,” plugged it into a stripped-down Sun workstation, typed in a password and there was his desktop. That’s how it will work in the future, he said.

McNealy, in other words, is still pitching the mantra of what people dubbed the network computer a few years ago. This was the notion that the intelligence and data would be in the middle of the network, which would serve bits and bytes to simple-minded workstation displays. As Sun says so famously in its marketing, the network is the computer.

It’s also remains a fundamental piece of Sun’s strategy for relevance in a dramatically changed technology world. The company has suffered, more than many of its peers, through the horrendous post-bubble downturn, with major job reductions and losses compounded by a lack of clarity, at least from many outsiders’ perspectives.

When customers were throwing money at Sun for its high-end computer systems, life was easier. Now even the company’s friends wonder what it will do to grow in a world where it is being squeezed by Linux and Microsoft at one end, and IBM at the other.

The biggest recent move, by far, was the decision to buy StorageTek, a big data-storage company, for about $4.1bn. Why, wondered some observers, would Sun buy a company whose business is built on tape data storage and retrieval?

In customer meetings, Mr McNealy replied, there is no such confusion. StorageTek gives Sun a beginning-to-end solution for data services, something that very few providers – IBM, for instance – can claim.

Indeed, ever since Sun and Microsoft patched over their long feud with a $2bn payoff from Microsoft and a mutual promise to co-operate, IBM seems to have become enemy number one. The barbs that once were launched in Microsoft’s direction tend now to have Big Blue as a target, though in a gentler form.

While his critics say Mr McNealy has barely changed with the times, in some ways that’s visibly untrue. Blogging is now ingrained in the culture, with hundreds of staff members writing weblogs, the most famous of which is by Jonathan Schwartz, the company’s president. Going around pesky journalists straight to the intended audience is the kind of thing that appeals to Mr McNealy and his people.

In the last several weeks, meanwhile, Sun has released the source code of its flagship operating system, Solaris, into the public sphere. It’s still Sun’s software, but others are now free (within some limits) to examine the internal workings and build on it.

Mr McNealy also seems comfortable with acknowledging the changed times. At a technology conference in May, he admitted that his company had been charging a premium that it could no longer justify.

During an on-stage interview he said, “At some point you get tired of buying a $5 shirt and paying $40 for the alligator,”This was a reference to the insignia on some expensive-to-buy but cheap-to-make men’s clothing In other words, he was asking, is it worth paying vastly more for a brand name in an era of commodity products? Even Sun is selling low-end servers powered by chips from Advanced Micro Devices, not Sun’s own Sparc processors.

This raised an obvious question, which I asked from the audience: Hasn’t Sun itself been that alligator? Mr McNealy didn’t deny it. He readily acknowledged it and said Sun no longer has the pricing luxury it once enjoyed – that Sun now really has to work harder for its dollars.

Mr McNealy calls himself an “old geezer,” a reference to his long tenure. He says he’ll run the company as long as the board wants him to, but wants to be part of it forever in any event. “It would probably be more fun to work for Sun than head it,” he says, unconvincingly, as he then rattles off a long list of Sun products newly launched or in the immediate pipeline. This is not the talk of someone who sounds inclined to step down, not any time soon.

Dan Gillmor is founder of Grassroots Media Inc in San Francisco. His new website is www.bayosphere.com

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