MENLO PARK, California--What's a company to do?
First discussed in 1996, Microsoft's Windows NT 5.0 Workstation
and Server operating system still has not seen the light of day as a
shipping product. Yet competitors like Unix-on-RISC chips server operating
systems leader Sun Microsystems must keep
the Microsoft upgrade squarely in its sights.
News.com sat down with John McFarlane, the chief of Sun's operating system
efforts, to gauge the effects of NT 5.0's promises, get McFarlane's take on the
state of Unix and freeware, and learn the role of Java in Sun's Solaris
The latest upgrade to Solaris is scheduled for release this October, an
update--currently called version 2.7--that will complete the software's
road map to 64-bits, a technology that allows users to essentially handle
larger chunks of data on their machines and will also include new
clustering software functionality.
Through McFarlane's glasses, NT is currently deemed a low-end nuisance, which could--in the long run--be a dangerous threat, a posture that could be deemed arrogant given the unquenchable thirsts of the Redmondians.
But the former Northern Telecom veteran who ascended to
the president of Sun's Solaris software efforts this spring makes it clear
that if there's going to be an alternative to NT, it will come from Sun.
News.com: What are your thoughts on battling NT 5.0, which seems destined
to ship in mid-1999 at the earliest?
McFarlane: We've been battling NT 5.0 for about three years. Microsoft
comes up with all these charts and hype. It's really hard to battle a
phantom--there's some figure in the mist with some alleged functionality.
It's delayed again. I hear it's closing in on 40 million lines of code.
Solaris is 11 million lines of code: very tight, very well structured,
highly reliable. God help me, I don't know how they're going to make 40
million lines of code work when 20 million-plus of it is new vs. 4.0.
They keep saying that the enterprise offering is 5.0--it's got an
unpredicted delivery date, it's got bags of code, I don't think they have a
clue how to test it for enterprise-class performance. I hate to win because
my competition loses, but NT is in deep trouble and I would not want to be
the product manager--I would be looking for a place to hide.
What is your view on the NT project itself?
They've done some good stuff on the commercial desktop in terms of
integrating the Excels and the Words and so on. They've kind of taken
their commercial desktop design center and said: "Gee, let's do
everything." It's brain dead, the surest way to fail I know is to try and
take all these complex, high-scale, high-reliability, demanding
applications and pretend it's like integrating Excel and Word. I think
where Sun excels is our design center has always been the Internet. It
baffles me how na?ve Microsoft could be about the complexity of what
they're trying to build.
At what level do you respect their market power and ability to
As a company, they're very aggressive, great marketing, fantastic drive, and
so on. And they're great copiers. They're ruthless. And they have a lot of
money to throw at marketing and a lot of monopoly leverage on the desktop
to arm-twist and crow bar partners and channels.
Have you seen pressure on traditional customers of Sun to use NT
more and more?
The pressure that I'm hearing from our customers is largely from those
corners of the organization that have Windows on the desktop and project
that experience into the back office or project that upstream into the
server market. The [management information systems] directors and the
[chief information officers] see a mixed network and don't want to
have NT anywhere near mission-critical or near a data center, but are
getting pressure from the line-of-business owners and the departmental
people that are using Windows on the desktop. That's leveraging NT--not
from a technology perspective, but from an association perspective.
Does Sun or Microsoft have to win for the other to lose?
The market for servers in the year 2000 or 2001 is around $55 to $65
billion, so it's a huge market. If it's only NT and Solaris servers, I'd
gladly take 50 percent of that market.
Is there a danger that Java could become as fragmented as Unix?
I think the straight-forward answer is that we have 100s of licensees,
hundreds of thousands of developers, and God knows how many [independent software vendors] and we've only had two minor incidents: One
with Hewlett-Packard that we're working
out and, of course, Microsoft, which is hell-bent on trying to block, so I
don't see any balkanization. People all recognize the value of standards
and all recognize the value of writing the application and having it run in
any application environment.
How do you view the state of the Unix market?
I may sound a little aggressive but I think my key competitors now are NT
and their intent to encroach on my space and the data center-MVS and System
390 [from IBM]. If I talk about key competitors we're targeting in
terms of our investments and where we're going, those are two of the major
competitors we're targeting. HP is in decline, Silicon Graphics is in decline, Sequent Computer Systems--these companies
are either losing money or losing business. The only other Unix that had
any growth--everybody else was negative--was Linux. And go Linux. A Linux
desktop is not a Windows desktop. I see the HPs and the IBMs converting
to systems integrators and service providers. They won't care--they're
getting out of being in the products business.
What role can the freeware movement play in the growth of Microsoft
I think it's really an interesting trend. I think it's a really powerful
and valuable software movement, particularly for innovation. I personally
wouldn't want to live in a world where the only desktop was Windows and
everything was Windows--I think it would be quite boring. For us, these are
our friends in the battle to maintain open standards and sustain innovation
in the software industry. We want to make more of our stuff freely
available and we just want to see it keep growing. The compelling value is
the huge amount of innovation we can tap into around the world that isn't
smothered because it's proprietary.
What sort of challenges do you face in addressing the perception
that Sun is a systems company, with software relegated to an add-on status?
There's clearly a lot of end-user interest. Interestingly now, more and
more customers are asking for Solaris servers. From both resellers and
[value-added resellers] we're getting feedback. We're getting pull
now around the Solaris brand. Certainly, there's more work to do. When you
look at the marketing investments Microsoft makes, we're in a constant state
of paranoia about getting enough branding information out there.
How does Solaris fit into the movement to build Java applications
on the server?
I think it opens up a huge new opportunity for the traditional Solaris
business because Unix interfaces and the numbers of new developers
developing to Unix is probably flat or in decline, roughly. That doesn't
mean applications aren't growing. The volume is still driving ahead, but a
lot of the new developers are going either to Java or to the Windows
interface, so this opens up a huge new realm of application opportunities.
Now many [independent software vendors] are coming on board that
we can now partner with who may not have
written to the Unix interfaces but can now write to the Java interfaces and
yet we can partner with them the way we've partnered in the Unix space. It
just expands the many [independent software vendor] partnerships we can
do. We've got 12,000 applications
that run on Solaris today and we will now be able to leverage the 700,000
to 1 million Java developers in addition.
Is Sun's suit against Microsoft due, in part, to the possibility
that Microsoft could fracture the server-side Java effort?
Certainly they dominate the commercial desktop, but I don't think anyone
wants nor needs a Microsoft monopoly on the server side, and there's a huge
amount of momentum around Java, particularly Enterprise Java Beans.