Sun's McNealy takes on Microsoft

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates always gets dibs on the first slot in the parade of Comdex keynotes by industry executives. But Sun Microsystems Chair and Chief Executive Scott McNealy used much of his own keynote Monday here to take on the Redmond giant on multiple fronts.

Though Sun and Microsoft compete most directly in the market for Web server software, McNealy touched on everything from office-suite software to the Xbox game console in his wide-ranging keynote and a follow-up session with PC World and others.

Amusing the Audience

The keynote began with thunderous audience laughter when Fredric Rosen, chairman of Comdex organizer Key3Media Group Inc., accidentally introduced McNealy as an executive who had shown tenacity in "the corporate bedroom." McNealy then kept the audience chuckling with a list of the top ten signs that Comdex and Las Vegas have been affected by the technology-company downturn. Sign number one: "Your company told you to bring back all the soap and shampoo from your hotel room."

McNealy continued to amuse attendees by making points with colorful language, often with a car theme--perhaps influenced by his upbringing; his father was vice-chairman of American Motors. A common theme: Sun's strategy of selling both hardware and software serves customers better than the Wintel world's approach. (He repeatedly referred to Microsoft and Intel Corp. as "General and Motors.") The keynote's demo was reminiscent of McNealy's 1999 keynote: Both showed off SunRay, a server-based technology that replaces PCs with network appliances: A worker inserts a Java-based smart card into any SunRay terminal, and gets his or her desktop, applications, and files. The SunRay demo at this year's keynote used the Gnome user interface, Sun's StarOffice suite, and Ximian Inc.'s Evolution personal-information manager to create a Windows-like environment.

The goal is to save companies money by reducing the need to outfit every worker with an individual PC and office space. Within Sun, McNealy said, SunRay devices would save the company $140 million a year. "Some people squawk to me about having to use StarOffice, but I'm more than willing to deal with that...and we're not going to pay so you can hang a picture on the wall of your Chihuahua dog."

Office Alternative

As for how StarOffice can compete with Microsoft's market-dominating Office, McNealy pointed to OpenOffice.org, a development project dedicated to producing an open-source suite based on StarOffice for 11 platforms. The Sun suite's file formats will also be open, in hopes of encouraging other developers to adopt them. Little-used file formats, McNealy said, "are kind of like learning Latin--there aren't a lot of people running around who you can talk to."

McNealy also said Sun is giving away millions of dollars' worth of StarOffice to schools in an attempt to counter Microsoft Office's dominance in the education market. "Microsoft has always tried to get 'em young," he said. "Xbox is the scariest, 'cause they get them at 7 or 8."

For now, McNealy said, the dominance of Microsoft's file formats is akin to Microsoft owning the English language. But StarOffice opens Microsoft-format files, McNealy said, and offers the features users need. "StarOffice 6.0 is way better than StarOffice 3.0 was three years ago," he said. "It was hard to have people go cold turkey from Microsoft. Now it isn't."

Compatibility Concerns

StarOffice still can't open every Microsoft file with complete fidelity, but McNealy is dismissive of users who fret about such compatibility issues. "That worry costs [companies] millions of dollars," McNealy told PC World. "[Documents] may look a little funny, but 99.9999 percent of the file will be transferred."

Still worried about compatibility quirks? "Send it back and ask for it in a Web-readable format like PDF," McNealy advises.

As for whether Sun's platform has all the productivity applications that end users want, McNealy said the answer is no. "I've been 100 percent browser-based for years, and I don't have everything I need." But not every application is a boon to productivity, he maintains. "Our earnings per share are higher because we don't have those apps [at Sun]. And anything that works in a browser works on my platform."

When asked if that included Web applications that use Microsoft's ActiveX technology, McNealy conceded that it doesn't. But ActiveX, he said, is "a virus," one of numerous digs he made at the security and reliability of Microsoft products.

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