Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Why? An Interview With The Director Of Sun Labs

An interesting interview with Glenn Edens has been published at Some excerpts:

On the future of Sun and Java matter what happens, whether Sun Labs existed or not, 10 years from now, the Java language will look different than it does today. Humans are really interesting, because we love to build tools, and we learn from that prior building experience to build better tools.
We also have a project code-named Squawk, in which we're working on a very compact, high performance Java environment written entirely in the Java language. We're also interested in offering developers in the device world a complete Java stack that doesn't require integration with numerous other system software vendors

On the distinction between product design and research labs
A research lab attracts a different personality than a pure product group. And pure academic research and big science attract an even different personality type. So, we're kind of in the middle. My joke about this -- and I get a lot of grief over it, but I still think it's a good metaphor -- is that product organizations are mostly staffed with engineers. And engineers are mostly nerds, who ask: "How are we going to get this done? How does this work? How can we make it better?" How, how, how

A research lab tends to consist of hippies, and hippies just ask why. Why, why, why. Why do I have to do it this way? Why should I do that? Why do I need to fill out this form? Why do I have to -- anything. Everything is a question. There is nothing that happens here without an argument. But that's part of our robust culture, and it's the "why" versus the "how". The reason I get in trouble with that analogy is, of course, there are very good engineers in the labs, and there are very good hippies in the product groups

On Project types
The vision projects are the core of what we do, and we do some interesting things in this area. Each researcher has a project that they pick by themselves and work on for some part of Fridays. They can work on anything they want. The only rule is they have to publish some results. But they get to pick how they spend Friday. Then we have our regular vision research projects, which are funded and evaluated, and we review them and nurture them through to hopefully get transferred to business units. That's probably more than 60% of what we do.

On Innovation
One thing that I find very amusing is that, from the perspective of Xerox, Xerox PARC was a complete success. There was no business model that required Xerox PARC to produce technology that shipped. Xerox PARC was funded because Xerox was afraid that IBM would invent the paperless office; then you wouldn't need Xerox. So, what's paradoxical is that everyone criticizes Xerox PARC, but from their perspective, it was a complete success

At Sun Labs, we work hard to make sure that our research staff is grounded in what's happening in the world. What's happening in pop culture? What are kids doing? What's this IM and learning to type with your thumbs about? Because kids, artists, and renegades are going to define how the technology gets used going forward.
But at the end of the day, the spark of innovation still comes from someone asking, "Why, why, why, why, why? Why do I have to do it that way? Why is this done this way?" And you cannot replace that spark with any automated or procedural mechanism

Waybackwhen, I had the honor to interview Bjarne Stroustrup (scanned interview will be posted here soon) - he was quite dismissive of Java, more so of the aggressive marketing efforts of Sun to push Java. The growth of the model for programming, and its influence on later models like Microsoft .NET, cannot be debated. The dynamic and vibrant Java community is another plus point in the fertile development of technology - a direct outcome of Sun Labs.

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