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Fistfights from the future

Industry heavyweights, including Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Scott McNealy, trade low blows at the Millennium Conference.

SAN FRANCISCO-How's this for a future vision: Scott McNealy has Bill Gates in a headlock, while Larry Ellison kicks Bill in the groin and swipes his wallet.

That's the scenario the Sun and Oracle CEOs proffered here yesterday at the Millennium Conference, a half-day event ostensibly arranged as a peek into our technological future.

Kicking off the event, Ellison turned his speech into a commercial for the Network Computer, which he plans to demo at an Oracle trade show in Tokyo, and into a vehicle for anti-Microsoft rhetoric cloaked in gushy Internet lovespeak: "The Internet is the common heritage of all mankind."

McNealy, whose speech ended the five-hour marathon, confessed to be confused why he and Ellison, both champions of the Java-NC worldview, were in the same lineup. Perhaps that's why he decided to play Scrooge to Ellison's Mother Theresa and equate universal Internet access with evil social fascism.

"Universal access is an issue we should all be scared of," McNealy said, switching his ire away from Gates for a moment and toward the government. "It's not a right; it's a wish. Anytime you give access to one person, you take it away from another, and then you have Big Brother."

He then proceeded to speak off the top of his head for twenty minutes, reeling off a dozen or so time-tested Microsoft jokes. The best was a reference to the latest Godzilla-sized Office suite: "Microsoft is king of the desktop hair ball."

All in all, it was not a flattering self-portrait of Silicon Valley's motormouth techno-cowboy duo. Their unadulterated Redmond-baiting drew big laughs but left little doubt as to the source of their enmity. It's not so much that they love open standards and despise monopolistic bullies, it seemed, but that they suffer from empire envy.

Sandwiched between Ellison and McNealy, the other speakers made the network-centric Bobsy Twins look like clowns. The meaty future vision came courtesy of Paul Saffo, director of the high-tech think tank Institute for the Future. Saffo urged the audience to look beyond the Internet and lasers to upcoming sensor technology that will give silicon the ability to gauge the analog world and modify it accordingly.

A simple example: Sensors in a car seat will judge the weight and position of a rider and instruct the air bag how quickly and at which angle to deploy at the moment of impact. Saffo also cited some chilling examples of minisensors--"smartifacts"--being tested in military and social-control situations that don't bode well for the future of individual privacy and human autonomy.

"The moment we ask them to monitor our analog world, we'll ask them to modify and manipulate it," Saffo said.

Common devices with built-in sensors will always be on, perhaps even with built-in cameras that Saffo predicted will become cheap to the point of disposability. "It is the end of inert matter," he said. "They will always be watching."

How the data such devices gather is used and whether it becomes public information is up to us, Saffo added.

Bell Atlantic CEO Ray Smith wasn't exactly visionary, but he offered sensible advice to present-day CEOs that the "disruptive technologies" of wireless transport, high bandwidth, and networked servers make adaptability, not long-range master plans, the order of the day.

"They're all plausible, they all make sense, and must be planned for, but they all won't happen," Smith said. "[We need] a new breed of CEOs who aren't locked in by their egos."

Or obsessed with their MiG-29s, he could have added, as Ellison told conference mediator and New York Times reporter John Markoff, who pitched a little Q-and-A after each speech, of his attempts to import a Russian-made fighter plane.

Smith also threw a bucket of cold-water reality on the Java-NC picture of thin clients on every desk and in every home, with essential data stored remotely on a server farm managed by network professionals. The Bell Atlantic chief, who is expecting federal approval to merge his company with Nynex, should know a thing or two about network reliability.

He warned that Internet brownouts and other network difficulties will be the rule, not the exception, if something isn't done to accommodate the flood of new users and ever-larger data packets.

When asked why users should switch to NCs, store their data elsewhere, and trust the network to deliver anytime and any place, McNealy said that corporate users on controlled intranets would have no problem. In fact, he hopes to make Sun a prime example: On June 30, McNealy said that he and 3,000 Sun employees will replace their PCs with JavaStation NCs and go completely with thin clients.

As for home users, he conceded that 24-hour fail-safe network access wasn't in the near future. Meanwhile, home users can just print stuff onto paper, McNealy said. They don't really need to store essential data on computers, anyway. (Scott, stick to the Microsoft jokes. At least they make us laugh.)