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Sun Labs' new boss

Bob Sproull looks to reinvigorate Sun Microsystems' research lab in the post-McNealy era.

As a member of the storied team that worked at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center in the early 1970s, Bob Sproull was privileged to witness the development of many of the technologies that paved the way for the PC business. He's still tinkering with high-tech toys--only this time he's doing it from the vantage point of the person calling the shots. After running the Massachusetts branch of Sun Microsystems Laboratories for a decade, Sproull recently was handed overall responsibility to direct the entire lab operation.

His appointment coincides with Sun Labs' 15-year celebration. CNET recently spoke with Sproull about his ambitions for Sun Labs and the general state of computer research in an increasingly global economy.

Q: I noticed looking through your CV (curriculum vitae) that you had put in some time over at Xerox PARC. What years did those include?
Sproull: They were in the glory days. I arrived at Christmas 1973 and I left in August '77.

Present at the creation, so to speak.
Sproull: Oh yeah! It was a great time. I still can't imagine how we got all the stuff done in what I think of as three and half or four years.

Which projects were you involved in?
Sproull: I actually was one of the main guys writing the Alto operating system, which was kind of interesting. And I was one of the guys on the first so-called Dover laser printer. I did all the software for that and part of the hardware and that was really pretty magical. We had this little tiny machine that was running, putting out 15 megabits a second of video that turned into page images. So at 384 bits per inch, we were printing a page a second from a tiny little Alto.

The industry has kind of lost a grand ambition. The last big thing was essentially outfitting the Web. All this Web 2.0 stuff is a refinement that kind of got lost in the land rush initially.

I hope you took pictures when you were there.
Sproull: Well, somebody did.

Now you're running the show as top guy at Sun Labs. What are your ambitions? Do you ultimately want to rival something like Microsoft has?
Sproull: In terms of a lab, no, not at all. When we started (15 years ago) Sun was a $3 billion company. But Scott (McNealy) felt that we really needed eyes and ears to be sure that Sun avoided surprises. Product engineers put their heads down--for good reason--and focus on getting a job done and the product out on time. They're not always looking around as much as they should. The second point is that if you're not making real contact with the rest of the technical community, you're not listening hard and not quite the right way if you don't have some research of your own.

So what, then, is your grand ambition here?
Sproull: Actually, we don't have a grand ambition right at the moment. We're fairly tactically oriented. I would say that in general, the industry has kind of lost a grand ambition. The last big thing was essentially outfitting the Web. All this Web 2.0 stuff is a refinement that kind of got lost in the land rush initially, and people forget that it had to be interactive.

Do you think we've run into just a stale period or have all the big ideas been thought of? Where do you see the industry right now in terms of innovation?
Sproull: I see a lot of the incremental motion, which occasionally crosses thresholds. A good example, I think, is all this convergence stuff. We've been talking about convergence for years and it's been happening faster and faster. I think you're beginning to see thresholds crossed. For example, this is a simple example, but the whole digital camera business--the threshold was crossed long ago and now people think of photography or taking pictures in a completely different way and you'll never go back.

Moore's Law isn't over. We're still seeing lots more microelectronics migrating into everything, especially in embedded systems and automobiles, etc. So those incremental changes keep happening and there will be the occasional threshold.

Right now, competition for talent is always pretty fierce. How do you attract the superstars--especially when right now the stock is trading around the $5 level?
Sproull: Well that's a difficult question. Certainly the thing that attracted me to Xerox was the ability to learn from a lot of other really bright people far brighter than I was. I like to think that we still have a good deal of that (at Sun). I think that Sun is still uniquely advantaged to do certain things, and people who want to do those things will come to Sun.

Is the lab going to be a place where you encourage your researchers to do theoretical work they find interesting, or will you require that their work have some near-term practical relevancy to Sun's business?
Sproull: That's something that we have always balanced. We are going to be valued and funded by Sun in the long run only if we add value to Sun. That means ultimately transferring value and technology into Sun's businesses or helping Sun build new businesses. But at the same time, we mustn't let Sun's current product directions or products completely determine what we do.

That's a fine line you're going to be walking.
Sproull: Absolutely.

There's been a steady decline in the number of American-born Ph.D.s in computer science. Should that be a cause for concern?
Sproull: Well, yes and no.

That's a good political answer.
Sproull: I'll flesh it out a bit. From Sun's point of view I think our challenge is to really tap into talent globally and we do that in a number of ways. Some is by having engineering sites around the world and trying to hire the best engineers around the world. Another way: We get students coming from around the world, so we think of that as a summer intern program...we use community building in various ways to try to get the most passionate people working on our technology.

Where do you see the future of R&D? Is the answer to offload more and more of it to India and China?
Sproull: No, I think it has to be a mix...where the company staff is located, I think, is increasingly open.

One of the benefits of a (global) community is you don't become parochial about addressing only the needs that a local or one national group perceives. A good example is OpenOffice, which has to be an international word processor. Getting it done properly in all the different languages and documentation and so forth is done more ably by an international community.

Getting people passionate about certain kinds of device drivers or test software is really tough. And yet if you want to deliver consistent, robust performance to a customer, you can't depend on just what the community is going to be passionate about. Every community has to be supplemented by a group that makes up those gaps.

That's what part what Red Hat is doing with their distribution, they're adding the test and the quality control and filling in the gaps of the community. To some extent we do a lot of that around OpenOffice. We contribute greatly to the OpenOffice community and we do that in order to ensure the overall robustness of the result. And by the way, you can go down the major open-source things--Apache, Eclipse, NetBeans, what have you--and you'll find, in general, big companies behind most of them. I think there is a reason for that and I think that will persist. Where those company staffs are located, I think, is increasingly open. It needn't be, onshore of the domestic U.S.

But let me not skirt your question. You asked about Ph.D.s in particular. My view is that in order for the U.S. to innovate, you have to have people who are educated and trained and active in the profession. That goes back to being sure that science and technology education in primary and secondary schools is OK. In the case of Ph.D.s, it goes back to ensuring that there's academic technical research--not just in computer science research, but electrical engineering and other related things, even psychology.

President Bush came to Silicon Valley recently and talked about his American competitive initiative, which was part of the State of the Union speech. Do you think this administration really gets it or is this just more political grandstanding?
Sproull: I don't know, and I don't think I'm really qualified to answer. I think the real question is not so much whether the administration gets it as whether the Congress is beginning to get it. And I think they are. I think they are beginning to see that the pattern that gave rise to the current and immediate preceding prosperity of the U.S. in technical areas has actually been broken. And if you break it, you may not discover for 10 or 15 years that it's broken and then it's too late. I think people are beginning to understand that message. I don't think we have yet much to show for it, in terms of new research agendas and so on. I'm hopeful that the administration in talking about it will lead to something.

Let's talk about some of the toys you're working on. What's the coolest thing you've got going in the labs these days?
Sproull: Well, I don't know, if you're to measure this sort of thing by oohs and aahs, but it's got to be Sun Spot. These are small handheld battery-operated sensors with little radios on them. They're digital, they're all programmable, so it's better than Bluetooth with the complete Java environment. They're not so tiny and so starved for computational resources that you can't run Java. So this means it's very easy for people to sit at their workstation and run their NetBeans and do their Java development.

Where are you right now with turning it into a product?
Sproull: The lab is planning to sell development kits and the kit will consist, I think, of three of these Spots. You download the software onto your machine; it's essentially free. I think that the kits are $400 or $500--so just enough to cover our cost. We've got a mailing list now. We haven't actually shipped any of these yet, but very soon. We don't necessarily think that they're going to be the ultimate sensor product, but they are a way to get people interested in what it means to write Java on distributed sensor gadgets.