"Did I Mention It Was Free?" - InformationWeek
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IT Leadership // CIO Insights & Innovation
Commentary
10/26/2007
06:57 PM
John Soat
John Soat
Commentary
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"Did I Mention It Was Free?"

Scott McNealy took his "software wants to be free" act to the NICSA Technology Summit 2007 in Las Vegas, even featuring a showman's hypnotic cadence. And it was a fine presentation, if you believe one thing: Open Source = Sun Microsystems.

Scott McNealy took his "software wants to be free" act to the NICSA Technology Summit 2007 in Las Vegas, even featuring a showman's hypnotic cadence. And it was a fine presentation, if you believe one thing: Open Source = Sun Microsystems."I'm now going to describe a strategy that makes Wall Street nervous," McNealy, chairman and co-founder of Sun, told the crowd of several hundred technology executives from the mutual funds industry. "It's one called sharing."

(At regular intervals he'd interject, almost like a chorus: "Did I mention it was free?")

McNealy pointed out the "quite interesting franchises" Sun has turned into open source technology, including its Solaris operating system, its Java technology, and the IP for its Sparc processors. "We're open sourcing anything and everything we can," he said. ("Did I mention it was free?")

McNealy also said that Sun indemnifies users of its open source software and IP against legal action, one of the few vendors of open source technology that does. ("Did I mention it was free?")

What are the advantages of open source technology? ("Did I mention it was free?") According to McNealy, there are five:

• Open lowers the barrier to entry. With open source software, the barrier to entry is just the download, he said: "It allows you to delay the investment in a new project till production, after you've gotten through R&D." ("Did I mention it was free?") McNealy said that that low barrier to entry would serve Sun well in the developing economy of China. What do you think China's going to use for its IP stack? OpenSparc or x86? Java or .Net? Solaris or Windows? "I think we're in a very good position to do quite well in China," he said. (Although he was quick to add he had no announcement to make in that area.) ("Did I mention it was free?")

• Open drives interoperability. McNealy said Sun has a community of 20,000 partners. "We're the No. 3 server company in the world, No. 5 x86 server company," he said. Intel OEMs Solaris, Sun has Solaris running on IBM's Power chip, and "Dell is shipping an enormous amount of Java computers every day," he said. ("Did I mention it was free?")

• Open lowers the cost of R&D (see point No. 1). ("Did I mention it was free?")

• Open is secure. "It's counterintuitive, I understand," McNealy said. But the logic goes like this: If there is a secret in your code, it will get discovered and there will be a breach; if it's open there are no secrets to exploit. "Name a Java virus," he challenged the audience. ("Did I mention it was free?")

• Open lowers barriers to exit. Technology these days has "the shelf life of a banana," McNealy said. If you're locked into a proprietary architecture, it can take a long time to get unhooked -- if you ever can, completely -- putting you at a competitive disadvantage. That isn't the case with open source technology. ("Did I mention it was free?")

Cognizant of his audience (financial analysts), McNealy kept reiterating how well his company was positioned. "We're growing, making money, spewing cash, tons of cash in the back -- trust me, we're doing OK," he said. "Free works out OK if you come up with the right business model." ("Did I mention it was free?")

McNealy ended his speech with a pitch for his company's Economics of Eco-Responsibility strategy. Sun can perform an "eco-responsibility" audit of a customer's data center, pointing out areas where energy -- and money -- can be saved. "It's the right thing to go do right now," McNealy said.

He didn't mention if it was free.

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