McNealy Pitches Desktop Hosting Option

Sun has rolled out an introductory "one-dollar-per-CPU-hour" plan and some other options. But on Monday, Sun Chairman and CEO McNealy talked about a desktop subscription program under which customers could deploy Sunrays at "X dollars per desktop per month."

"I'll host it and you use it wherever you wherever your Java card is inserted," he told a group of reporters at the Gartner Symposium ITXpo in Orlando, Fla.

Sun would run those dispersed desktops on its "N1 Grid," in what is essentially a reiteration of the company's traditional thin-client "network-is-the-computer" mantra. Sun is hardly alone. IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Oracle are all pushing their own versions of pay-as-you-go IT.

McNealy said his vision compares well with the old-school IBM mainframe hosting model, where most application intelligence is centralized. "This is back to the future, only better," he said later in his keynote to a few thousand IT professionals. "In the old days, IBM in Armonk, R&D was closed, proprietary. Now we're talking about completely open infrastructure instead of a mainframe running Cobol, you use AMD/Intel/TI/Sun microprocessors, running the community development model, Solaris will be open source very soon[Maybe you run] the Java open services stack at $100 per year vs. Cobol. Instead of SNA you have fast TCP/IP. Instead of green- screen 3270 you have a thin-client, multimedia browser," he said.

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That strategy contrasts with Microsoft's rich-client, integrated stack worldview where a good portion of application logic and intelligence, as well as data, resides on the local hard drive. Now, Microsoft is working on next-gen Office servers to wring more functionality, and more revenue, from the Office brand.

Sun had hoped its big RBOC and service provider customers and partners would jump on its new hosted offerings and take care of customer maintenance. But, Sun ended up marketing the service itself, McNealy said. "We went retail because our wholesale customers, the carriers, the RBOCs, were going too slow," he noted.

Gartner analysts grilled McNealy on the impact of his grand vision on Sun sales reps and VARs who are used to getting a good amount of short-term, upfront revenue on server and software sales, will deal with this change of plan.

"There's a tough transition for folks," McNealy conceded. "We will have commission plan for first design win and compensate channel customer for keeping them on subscriptionphone companies and others have figured out how to keep people on plan."

EDS, which announced a new partnership with Sun, Cisco, Dell, EMC, Microsoft and Xerox to build an enterprise infrastructure reference platform for customers, would like to play a role in such a desktop subscription initiative, said Robb Rasmussen, vice president of global alliances for EDS.

McNealy also told reporters that the Sun-Microsoft interoperability dtente is going well, but taking a bit longer than expected. Sun CTO Greg Papadopoulos and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates were supposed to unveil the first fruits of their labor this month, but "it's not quite ready to show," McNealy said.

He hopes the companies will unveil their progress by year's end. Sun and Microsoft have already said they will work on single-sign on capabilities, make their respective directories interoperate and also hinted about file-system interoperability. They announced their new-found mutual admiration in April when they buried the hatchet on some intellectual property and other disputes and Microsoft paid Sun $1.6 billion.

McNealy's tone was about a near-complete about-face from very public position he took a few years ago at this conference. At that time, he called for the demise of the "software-only world". That comment sparked a war of words with then-rival, now partner Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.

For a man who once called software a feature of hardware McNealy repeatedly extolled Sun's software expertise including Java, Jini, Solaris, tools, compilers, N1. "Not bad for a company that doesn't do software," McNealy said. He didn't mention the fact that he himself used to tout the image of Sun as a hardware company. In fact, he used to repeatedly joke that Sun itself was safe from possible threats because no one would ever "be able to download a SPARCstation."