Getting a Gage on Sun

Sun Microsystem Inc.’s executives have been noted for their eagerness to criticize Microsoft, and chief researcher and director of the science office, John Gage, is no exception. But Gage speaks his mind and not even Sun can escape the biting lash of his tongue, as ComputerWorld Canada products editor Poonam Khanna found out during a meeting with Gage at the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company’s JavaOne developers’ conference, held recently in San Francisco.

CWC: What do you think the DOJ decision will mean for Microsoft?

Gage: Microsoft will last a long time. I think the most common Microsoft product in the world is Windows 3.1 – it runs in hundreds of millions of cheap little PCs. My guess is the United States’ department of justice will help Microsoft far more than Microsoft management has ever been able to. Because by dividing Microsoft into pieces, it will allow components of Microsoft that are quite capable to do the things that they have not been able to do under the rather narrow technical vision of Bill Gates.

If Bill Gates had ever understood anything about computing at base, Microsoft would have been a far more formidable player. Instead, they stayed behind this fortress of monopoly on the desktop, and not allowed the innovations inside Microsoft. Most of the companies that they acquired found that they were in some gulag – a comfortable gulag. They were purchased; their technology then vanished. They made some money, they had a house, but it essentially went nowhere. You see very few changes in Microsoft products emerge.

If somebody monitored the door at Microsoft right now to see how many people are passing out through that door, that will be the telling statistic. At Microsoft, there might be 50 people, maybe a 100 who could, at this instance, come to work anywhere else. There are another 500 people, who are extremely good. After that, they have a significant drop off, which you can see in the quality of their software. The bulk of the software programmers and software developers at Microsoft have habits that no other company would like to bring into their cover. These are habit that are made possible by a shield of monopoly – you don’t have to remove bugs, you don’t have to document things, you can ship products that don’t work for a year.

CWC: How do you attract top-level developers?

Gage: The way that you get them is to make sure there’s an environment with intellectual excitement and challenge. And there’s sort of a forking of the road. There’s a group for whom intellectual excitement and conversation that’s really cutting edge and really pushing as hard as you can is enough. The other group must see what their ideas are and turn into something that other people are affected by.

CWC: Does Jini have a dark side in terms of limiting privacy?

Gage: Every piece of technology that we discuss here has power, therefore it has capabilities to be used in ways that you would be unhappy with. The advances in information technology make anyone interested in control very happy because there’s a great increase in information.

If I visit a Web site, and the Web site asks me for some information, probably what happens is, they’ve got somebody like Doubleclick or somebody else, which is really asking for the information, and keep the information on behalf of the Web site. Each [Web site I visit] acquires one more small fragment of information. Doubleclick becomes the repository of it all. You go to Doubleclick, and they know 15 different things. This site’s got your social security number, that site’s got your home address, this site’s got what drugs you order, but my god, the data’s all in one place.

Well, what are you defined by? You’re defined by your age, nationality, marital status, what magazines you read, what movies you see, what foods you eat. Just three or four of those, and I’ve got a pretty good grip on you.

CWC: Why was there so much mention of money during the keynote speeches at JavaOne?

Gage: Pat (Sueltz, president of Sun’s software division) did this money stuff. The only thing Scott (McNealy) said about money is, “We make a lot of money from Java, ha, ha, ha.” Which means we don’t make any money from Java. Pat was off in some weird direction about, “You’re all going to be rich!” Well, sure. That’s just untrue. The American democratic myth is anyone can be president. Let me tell you that I can look through the list of every American baby born this year, and I can exclude 80 per cent of them of any chance ever of being president. How right will I be? Pretty right.

But the money side of it that I think is remarkable, is the ability of the technology to change fundamentally the efficiencies with which we use what we already have. Everything we do in these industrial societies is unbelievably wasteful. Bill Joy (Sun’s chief scientist), in that article in Wired (published April 2000), points out that there are areas, where led by the savings of doing something cheaply, you go in a direction that can be very dangerous. The ability to manipulate genetic code to generate substances that can individually kill someone costs nothing to do this. Money, in that instance, can lead us down danger.

Every journalist that covered the Microsoft virus story – there are a lot of people that wrote the lead that said, “Computer viruses stocking the world.” MSNBC did a half-an-hour show about computer viruses sweeping the globe, causing panic everywhere, and never mentioned Microsoft. Never. Anyone that has written a story about General Motors having a break failure and a recall problem, and didn’t mention General Motors, would be fired as a journalist summarily. And they did it over, and over, and over again globally.

CWC: Given Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine, what is Sun doing to ensure that it’s technology isn’t used for destructive purposes?

Gage: Well, not much. Bill has raised these issues. I do think that Bill tells the truth. Bill read an article excerpted in (Ray) Kurzweil’s book that startled him, because he found the sentiment about the dangers of these technologies written by the Unabomber. Bill wrote that into his article. That doesn’t understand the way the normal media process works, because the first thing people see is “Oh, you agree with the Unabomber.” Well, yeah, about 90 per cent.

Bill points out that the arrival of self-replicating, cheap technology that’s accessible to everyone brings us to some new plateau of threat. And the question then is what do we do about it. Well, the answer to what we do about it (is) we need to institutionalize this appeal Bill can make and a few others to this set of people represented by 30,000 or whatever number of people here at JavaOne.

There’s an ethical example that needs to be set by the bio/nano/information crowd about what do you do, and what don’t you do. And when you’re in an area when you know what you do could yield something that could seriously get out of control, you better seriously start thinking about control. Because if you don’t, and just blindly go ahead, you’ve created something dangerous. The awful part of it is, there’s no way to stop it. But you can make people aware, and slow things down.

So, what is Sun doing? Well, we’re continuing as a company, doing what we do, which is making computers, which in theory are more and more reliable. We’re doing our best with Java and Jini to create the technology that allows a reliable and safe world to be built. And we’re trying to use the pull with people we have to talk about these issues.

And frankly, from Sun’s point of view, the business part of Sun is startled and somewhat uneasy. No businessperson likes anybody to say, “Oh, guess what customers, you’re going to die.” Well, guess what, the world’s not safe. “Oh, please don’t say that. The world’s wonderful, you have a little extra money in you’re pocket, you’re going to be a happier person if you buy this brand of lipstick.” So, Bill has done something which is courageous.

Well, you can get me going on these things far more than I should. When I finished talking this afternoon about Microsoft I had a [Sun employee] out to kill me, because Sun people aren’t supposed to go make statements about Microsoft executives purposefully lying under oath in the United States federal court. Didn’t they? Of course they did, that was the entire point. When an exec VP of Microsoft has to say, “I stand corrected, when that lawyer shows in his e-mail that exactly contradicts what he had just testified to, what other word can you use. But then again, I’m not a very polite person on these things.