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New Sun executive tackles changing market

The challenge used to be convincing programmers to pay attention to Java, says Pat Sueltz, leader of Sun's software products. Now the challenge is making sure there are enough Java programmers to go around.

SAN FRANCISCO--Call it the IBM era for Sun Microsystems' Java software.

Five years into the history of Java, it's now more common to see buttoned-down business people than long-haired programmers roaming the aisles of Sun's JavaOne conference here. And as Java has become a more serious technology for large businesses, JavaOne has become a launchpad for announcements from the biggest corporations.

As Java has matured, the challenges Sun--Java's inventor--faces have become more mundane. Five years ago, the challenge was convincing programmers to pay attention to something other than Microsoft Windows, said Pat Sueltz, leader of Sun's software products. Now the challenge is merely making sure there are enough Java programmers to go around, she said.

Sueltz's move from the Java operations of IBM to Sun last fall itself embodies this more staid era for Java. IBM has staked its business on a reputation for making sure its thousands of customers stay happy and get what they need. Bill Joy, James Gosling, John Gage and other Sun visionaries still have influence in the Java community, but Sueltz carries a different aura--one of practical use rather than experimentation.

"I'm here at Sun to make sure we execute and deliver on our promises," Sueltz said while discussing the state of Java in an interview at the JavaOne conference.

Sueltz has towed other former IBM employees to Sun in her wake: last year, David Gee and last week, Simon Phipps, who has become Sun's software evangelist. "It was a better opportunity to be at the heart of the whirlwind," Phipps said of his change of employer.

Sueltz discussed some of the issues facing Java in an interview yesterday with CNET News.com.

CNET News.com: In terms of Java, we used to hear about Sun vs. Microsoft. Now you almost hear no mention of Microsoft and Java. Have you just clammed up because of your lawsuit against Microsoft over Java, or has Microsoft faded from the Java debate?
Sueltz: Only Microsoft has faded. The Internet revolution has spread the message that it's more than just one operating system. What we've learned from the open-source community was all about keeping APIs (application programming interfaces) open and writing to that and innovating, so we could compete on implementation. Microsoft wasn't sharing. Innovation does happen elsewhere, and you risk being the odd man out if you're not letting other people innovate and make money with you.

As gadgets start to proliferate, we're looking at a profusion of different profiles for Java 2 Micro Edition. Does it undermine "write once, run anywhere" if you have situations where someone is writing for Java TV, Java Phone, Personal Java or some customized version of embedded Java?
I don't think so because it all comes from the basic tenet. If I were to draw this concentric circle, you would start with the base of Java 2 Standard Edition, a subset of that is Java 2 Micro Edition for small devices. The basic tenets of Java 2 Standard Edition, which we've made faster, better performing, you can connect these devices without missing out on the standard. I don't think you will have the phone being out of sync with the smart card.

What are the biggest challenges facing Java now?
The biggest challenge I see is skills. The hottest, most in-demand programming skill is Java. I've been told you can take any Java programmer worth his or her salt and within 24 hours place them in a job. What that means is we have to make sure we keep growing that. Ninety percent of universities in the U.S. are teaching Java. It's a base skill folks are building worldwide, in Latvia, Beijing, India. More than half the (JavaOne) attendees are non-North American based. How do we keep those folks building (in Java) when you have billions of devices coming?

What were the challenges facing Java five years ago?
It was gaining credibility with developers when the marketplace was dominated by Microsoft. People weren't paying attention to Java.

It seems JavaOne is less about hyping the technology and more about products being released.
This is not just about devices and gadgets. We can poke at that. It's about running transactions and business on the Web. It's not about e-business or e-commerce. It's about business and commerce, and Java is powering that. The world, by the way, is wireless, and we'll see wireless broadband any minute and that will bring along the rest of the global economy, because the (rest of the) world doesn't have the infrastructure we have in the North American continent.

Microsoft is touting a new software strategy called Next Generation Windows Services (NGWS), aimed at giving people Internet-based software and services. What's Sun's response to that?
Remember when Bill Gates announced there was no Internet and then said there was? What they've seen is (that) the service-driven network is the future, and what NGWS is, is where we've been and talking about for years: services on the Net and applications you can access.

How do you reconcile Sun's description of Java as "open" with its continued "stewardship" position over Java? Will there ever be a time when Sun lets go of its grip on Java?
I never say never. I think this is an evolutionary process. What we're seeing in stewardship here is nurturing great technology and ensuring compatibility. When we got started on this, folks didn't think Java was legitimate. Folks didn't know what it was. You needed someone to nurture it and carry it along. It's not unlike being a young child and being nurtured. We did the same thing with the network file system with Solaris and just turned that over to the standards body. We are very committed to open standards. What we are committed to is compatibility. What I don't want to have happen is see Java take off in a way that would cause a fragmentation of this great technology powering the Internet.

Is anyone trying to fragment it?
I don't think so--with any bad motives in mind. What I think can happen, though, is if we don't watch this for compatibility, you could actually lose the collaboration of standards. What we're working on is stewarding this, keeping it only to ensure compatibility, but not ever trying to stop the innovation of the technology.