To you it's a PC. But to him it's an overripe banana

Sun Microsystems' boss wants to change the face of the workplace. Stephen Pritchard asks if he can make business buy into his vision of the future
Click to follow

During his 21 years as chief executive of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy has made many bold - and a few bizarre - statements. Even so, a discussion of fruit that has seen better days is not something most technology executives could work into a speech.

During his 21 years as chief executive of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy has made many bold - and a few bizarre - statements. Even so, a discussion of fruit that has seen better days is not something most technology executives could work into a speech.

McNealy, though, is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom; in many ways it is doing just that that has allowed Sun to survive when so many other computer companies have been crushed by the combined might of Microsoft and Intel. On a visit to Scotland last week, he challenged his competitors not by talking about features or speed, but by likening their wares to an "18-month-old banana".

McNealy's argument is that the conventional way businesses buy IT guarantees that by the time equipment reaches them, it is obsolete. Instead, he suggests, they should buy low-cost, simple internet terminals known in the trade as thin clients. Sun, naturally, makes these. The terminals should be linked to large servers to run applications. Ideally, staff would access their terminals using a Java smartcard. Sun makes both servers and smartcards, too.

McNealy is at pains to suggest that this vision is not the same as in the old days of the mainframe, when companies ran their applications on dumb terminals and faced paying large annual maintenance fees to their mainframe suppliers. In the Sun vision, companies could use other companies' terminals or even servers. McNealy calls this "zero barriers to exit", and argues that companies should buy from Sun, because it is easy to switch to a rival.

If this all seems rather contrary to the logic of normal business, that is not a view shared at Sun. McNealy argues that the way companies buy technology today is fundamentally flawed.

"Our vision is very different from Microsoft's vision, which is a mainframe [computer] on everyone's desk, where everyone is a super user or has the root password," he says. Existing technology, he suggests, is expensive and way too complicated.

The Sun view of computing, though, is not simply fine-tuning what other companies, such as IBM or HP, offer. Instead, McNealy argues for a completely different model, where users rent capacity on enormous public grids - a wholesale replacement of current IT practice.

He admits it is risky. "If you are going to be here, you might as well go big," he says. "If I am going to bellyflop into the pool, I want to empty that pool out. The computer industry is more screwed up than any on the planet except healthcare, and that industry kills every patient eventually."

Sun argues that computing would be simpler and more reliable if businesses ran applications on large, centralised servers, where it is easy to maintain them, and viewed them over the network. This concept, known as network computing in Sun speak, has been around for some time. But falling PC prices have meant that most companies choose a cheap PC, usually running Windows, rather than alternatives such as Sun's SunRay terminal.

"The thin client argument has been won," says David Bradshaw, principle analyst at Ovum, the research firm. "But the client is the PC. Why PCs? They are cheap, they are standard, and you can buy them from many different companies."

Sun, though, is taking another line against conventional IT: that it is bad for the environment. Speaking at the company's Executive Forum last week, Sun executives argued that network computing consumes fewer resources than PC-based networks, and becomes obsolete less quickly.

According to Sun, it takes raw materials equivalent to 640 times the weight of a PC to make one computer. A conventional PC with a cathode-ray (CRT) screen contains 1.74kg of lead. Sun also argues that over a million old, but working, PCs are dumped in landfill sites in the UK each year.

A typical PC has a shelf life of between two and three years. Sun argues that its SunRay terminals last for seven years, and the company guarantees them for five. It is also easier to update applications by upgrading servers centrally, instead of putting new software on each PC. Eventually, Sun believes, companies and consumers will rent their PC processing power from a service provider, much as we buy power or telephone services today.

But it is hard to see companies switching from PCs in large numbers, even if fines and taxes for disposing of old IT hardware increased significantly. As one chief information officer at Sun's Executive Forum pointed out, it is "often cheaper to pay the fine".

And even if businesses were convinced by the sustainability argument, there are few guarantees they would pick Sun. Analysts caution that the company's ability to differentiate what it offers from its competitors' products is being eroded, especially as cheap PC servers running the freely available operating system Linux are closing the performance gap on Sun's Solaris operating system. Sun further confuses matters by offering both Linux and servers running PC processors.

Instead, analysts say that Sun should concentrate on building on its presence in its key telecoms and financial sector markets, rather than trying to satisfy every market. "Solaris doesn't have enough to differentiate itself, unless you have to do something specific," says Ovum's David Bradshaw.

Industry analyst Gartner remains more positive on Sun. "We see them as looking for the next big thing, only they're not sure where it will come from," says vice-president Andy Butler.

But if Scott McNealy is going to make his big splash, he needs to act quickly, before too many other swimmers dive into the pool.