COMDEX: McNealy touts Sun, but light on vision

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy wore the mantle of pitchman-in-chief for Sun Microsystems Inc. in a well-attended keynote speech at Comdex Monday, painting a sunny picture of his company’s future and pushing Sun’s technology along with open source software as a way to reduce the complexity of implementing business technology.

McNealy didn’t waste time addressing concerns about Sun’s ability to sell its servers and software following the collapse of the Internet bubble. Instead he began his speech with a frank, if somewhat forced assessment of Sun’s financial standing that emphasized the company’s healthy cash position and share of the hardware market.

“We’ve got tons of cash…it all feels pretty good now,” McNealy said.

Still, the reality of a harsh economy and reduced IT spending by companies did not escape his notice.

“I wish our customers had more money,” McNealy said.

Along with other companies, Sun suffered from a glut of hardware purchases in recent years which means customers are spending less today. With most companies years away from writing off those investments, demand for new equipment was low. In addition, the events of Sept. 11 and an increased concern about the security of hardware and software put a damper on new spending, McNealy said.

Sun’s strategy to pull itself out of the doldrums will be to offer products and services to its customers that will reduce the complexity of implementing business technology, according to McNealy.

Companies should look for ways to reduce the number of servers they use, consolidating multiple Web and application servers on a single high-end platform such as Sun’s Sun Fire 15 K line, McNealy said.

Software development efforts should abandon the operating system and begin targeting high-level, platform-free environments such as Java, XML (Extensible Markup Language), and Sun’s own Sun ONE (Open Network Environment) offerings, McNealy said.

Companies should invest in directory systems that use LDAP (Lightweight Directory Application Protocol) and provide single sign-on and user authentication capabilities to both simplify and secure network operations, according to McNealy.

Assessing the competitive landscape, McNealy touted what he termed Sun’s focus on developing a “Lego-like” architecture that is Web-focused and flexible, allowing customers to easily integrate Sun’s servers, microprocessors, software and tools with products produced by third-party vendors.

McNealy juxtaposed this to competitor Microsoft Corp.’s strategy, which he said is based upon “welding shut” components.

Alluding to Microsoft’s close integration of Internet Explorer with the Windows operating system, which was at the heart of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust case against the company, McNealy chastised Microsoft for what he called its closed approach.

“I can’t believe that they’ve architected their technology so poorly that simply removing an application will shut down an operating system,” McNealy said.

Despite the high-profile rivalry between Sun and Microsoft, McNealy left his harshest criticism for IBM Corp., whom he presented as Sun’s chief competition in the corporate data centre and whom he castigated for what he characterized as a costly, opaque, and closed approach to building business solutions.

“IBM’s strategy is ‘Don’t try this strategy at home.’ They say, ‘if you’ve got a wallet, we’ve got a Hoover,’ McNealy joked.

Dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt, McNealy moved about the stage with ease and projected a casual confidence and exuberance about Sun’s products that brought to mind a television infomercial.

Attendees had mixed impressions.

Nick Francis, who is employed with a Microsoft partner in the United Kingdom, said he felt McNealy presented a more personable and charismatic face than Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates on Sunday night and said he felt more positive about Sun’s future following the keynote address.

The was a hint of envy of Sun’s larger competitors, especially Microsoft, in McNealy’s keynote, as well as at a question and answer session that followed.

“Billions help,” McNealy said at the Q&A session. “Microsoft can buy a lot of love in a lot more places. It’s tough.”

He did his best to stay focused on Sun’s core message: Sun would benefit from the increased use of “blade” type server deployments, in which operating systems and applications were deployed on a single, flexible hardware platform.

The company’s N1 network architecture and IForce partner programs were answers to the problem of deploying and integrating complex and heterogenous systems that would ultimately result in increased savings and efficiencies for Sun’s customers, he argued.

Still, salvation appears to be quite a way away. McNealy estimated that it would be five years or more before the N1 technology was mature and gave no indication of how long it would be before Sun’s investments in research and development would bear fruit.