Sun's brash Zander talks tough against competitors

Sun Microsystems chief operating officer Ed Zander may not be as outspoken as his boss, Scott McNealy, but he's a close second.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
Sun Microsystems chief operating officer Ed Zander may not be as outspoken as his boss, Scott McNealy, but he's a close second.

Zander, who has been with Sun since 1987, has seen the company claw its way from a seller of niche Unix workstations to a powerhouse of the computing landscape. By selling ever-increasing numbers of powerful and profitable server computers--the brains of the Internet and of corporate networks--Sun has put Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Intel on the defensive.

In doing so, though, Sun has stepped on more than a few toes. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based company has run into trouble trying to spread its Java software as widely as possible while simultaneously maintaining some control. It's also roused the wrath of Intel, which accused Sun of not working hard enough to get Sun's Solaris operating system working on Intel's upcoming high-end Itanium processors.

But Zander is unapologetic. In a wide-ranging interview with News.com, he took on Intel, Microsoft, and even the Linux movement that so many companies work hard to curry favor with.

CNET News.com: A lot of people call Java proprietary to a certain degree.
Zander: Bah! Java will go down, 10 to 20 years from now, as the most open, standard language and software environment that has hit our industry as long as I've been around.

Here it is four and a half years later, we've got 2.5 million programmers in Java, we've got every educational institution and high school teaching children (Java). I don't get a dime for this stuff.

Java will go down, 10 to 20 years from now, as the most open, standard language and software environment that has hit our industry. You have these guys--GM and Ford and BMW and Motorola...and Nokia and Symbian and Mastercard and Visa--all doing Java without anything to do with Sun, other than to give us a call every once in awhile to ask us technical questions.

What makes it so incredibly interesting and why Microsoft gets so bent about it is the fact that...once I say I'm writing a Java application, I can run it on (any Java-enabled) device.

It seems that's conformance to Java functioning, not Java branding.
No, because at the end of the day, what makes a McDonald's french fry is there is a spec and you have to conform to it. And what makes Solaris (Sun's version of the Unix operating system) Solaris, and why I have the market position we have today, is because there is one Solaris. So you have a spec and a conformance to a brand. It's so important to the Java brand that we maintain it.

If you're going to build a Java virtual machine, we only ask you to...pass the conformance. And that's what Microsoft didn't want to do. Microsoft wanted--this is so clear and simple--they wanted to take the spec and add extensions and still call it Java. Outside of three companies--HP and Microsoft and depending on what day of the week it is, IBM--nobody complains about Java.

Sun software evangelist George Paolini was talking about eventually open-sourcing it.
We would love to some day.

At what point?
When we think innovation has happened to the point where we have pervasiveness. And even with open source, if you're going to use the Java brand, you passed the conformance test.

The thing with Linux today--I call it the bathtub. I can throw source in there. It's all floating around and it's available to everybody. But I as a vendor can take anything I want out of that bathtub and call it Linux.

Now if you think that's going to work for application developers, call me in a year or two when IBM's Linux is different than HP's Linux is different than Dell's Linux and (a customer) will have to recompile five times. You've broken it effectively. So you cannot depend on one Linux.

It still seems like there's some uncertainty about where software fits in at Sun.
I think we haven't marketed well. I think where the problem is we always live with this hardware overhang. It's hard to get the press and the analysts to understand how important it is inside the company. We've got more software programmers than hardware programmers inside the company.

We entered into a deal with Intel several years ago to do (Solaris on) Itanium. We did it, and they reneged. We've got some really good substance here. It's Java; it's the tools that we've been collecting under Forte and NetBeans that we haven't done a good job in marketing; it's the iPlanet strategy; and it's Solaris.

Why is Sun so interested in bringing Solaris to Itanium?
Here it is nine years later since I did some Intel deal and people still doubt our intention. We realized there were two platforms back in 1990 that were going to survive. One was Intel; that was easy to pick. The other one was (Sun's) Sparc. People didn't believe us. There is today a huge business for Sparc applications and there's a huge business for Intel.

So we ported Solaris to Intel. We spent years and tens of millions of dollars, if not more, converting the source base, and nearly crippled Sun back in '92 and '93 doing that. Today we have one source base and we compile twice (once for Intel and once for Sparc chips).

We entered into a deal with Intel several years ago to do Itanium. We did it and they reneged. I think they just didn't deliver on their commitments.

They're confusing the success of Sun in the marketplace with the Solaris-on-Itanium port, and they don't realize that their success in the marketplace is (tied to) Solaris. So if anything, if I was them, I would embrace Solaris tonight on Itanium and market it to Compaq and Dell and HP and everybody else.

So who needs the other partner more? Do you need Intel more than they need Solaris?
We don't need anybody (now). In the industry five years ago, seven years ago...I don't think Intel needed us; we needed them. Sparc did not have the breadth and application base. Today we are growing at 30 to 40 percent a year. And applications are coming over here in droves.

How has the collapse of the dot-com euphoria affected Sun?
I never thought Toothpaste.com was going to make Sun. We did know that working with the optical companies and the Internet infrastructure companies and the Inktomis and the portals was going to drive a lot of this.

Plus we also knew when we talked to a GM and a GE and a Citibank and a Gap and a Wal-Mart that they were going to re-architect their supply chains and business processes and customer service stuff. That's where the money was going to be made in this whole dot-com area--that they were going to dot-com themselves like Sun was.

But it was great to say, "We're the dot in dot-com," because it got everybody focused on Sun being an Internet infrastructure supplier. I figured there might have been a shakeout at some time, but we had a very small part of our business in that anyway.

Don't confuse AOL with a new dot-com company. I look at AOL and eBay, I look at Exodus, I look at Digix--these guys are going to be players for a while.

I'm curious about the Sun-AOL iPlanet software suite. Most of iPlanet is now run by Sun folks. You said 800 out of 2,500 iPlanet folks are AOL employees. What's the future direction for that? Is that going to become an all-Sun shop at some point?
We may of course see more and more Sun personnel building these products because that's our area of expertise. But you're going to see (Sun) working closely with AOL on understanding the end-to-end architectures--how iPlanet technology can benefit AOL.

And we'll be working on even things around Java and appliances that are outside of iPlanet but things we can do with AOL. We like the relationship. I can't tell you the intangible benefits we've gotten here at Sun understanding a consumer portal company that deals with 30 million subscribers.

There's a ton of stuff we sold to them. I don't know the numbers. And then of course the doors have opened up to us because I think the combination of the two brought us into (new) accounts. We got a ton of server business that maybe we wouldn't have gotten.

What's changed in your job since you were promoted in April 1999, becoming president as well as chief operating officer?
Probably the only change that has really been hard for me is most of my role as COO goes to produce the (revenue and profit) numbers, to make the (new) products.

The president's role has got me more external. Dealing with the customers, dealing with strategic relationships, dealing with some of our partners has helped take a load off Scott to come in to the companies and close the deals.

You've said that by the end of this year, about half of Sun employees will have less than two years' seniority with the company.
Scaling the company is probably Scott's and my biggest challenge right now. You realize as executives that it's probably more (a problem) than any competitor. It's your biggest challenge. How do you assimilate, train, (teach the Sun) culture?