Technology

"It All Comes Back to U.S. Innovation"


Sun Microsystems has a reputation for strong research and development. It has long invested a much greater share of its revenues in R&D than most of it competitors that make high-end servers. Even as it has struggled in the face of growing competition, Sun (SUNW) has stuck to this strategy. And this spring it will launch several new products that it believes will help it win back -- or hold onto -- customers.

The leader of that technology effort is Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer, who travels the world looking for the latest and greatest innovations in software to run on Sun's servers. On Mar. 9, BusinessWeek Online Technology Editor Alex Salkever spoke with him about Sun's plans. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: Is the U.S. in danger of losing its technology dominance in coming decades?

A: There is always a danger of that. It's partly what we created. The communications revolution in computing and networking is making that possible. But I believe that growth across technology markets is a tide that will lift all boats. There's not situation in the past where that hasn't happened.

Q: What are some of the risks?

A: Other societies have a much higher matriculation rate of people in technology fields. We could be overwhelmed if we don't educate enough people to meet our needs.

Q: Is it a sign of weakness that innovative research is happening elsewhere?

A: No, we think it's an amplifier of our advantage and something that can help everyone both inside and outside the U.S. One of our central theses at Sun is that innovation happens everywhere. We create a technology platform so that other people can innovate on it.

The foundations of many things that are being built now can be traced back to the U.S. Take Linux. It was arguably built in Scandinavia. But it was based on Unix, which was built in the U.S. And even Linus Torvalds [the founder of Linux] is now working here. It all comes back to U.S. innovation, which has led to a distillation of tech leadership.

Q: What do you mean by that?

A: There were far more competing ideas around the globe 20 years ago with respect to computer architecture, operating systems, and software. There were dozens of companies with their own ideas in Europe and Japan. All of that stuff is gone now. The standards came out of the U.S.

Q: To play devil's advocate, haven't we given foreign companies the tools that are being used to beat us in fast-growing markets? Take China. Huawei is doing well in routers competing against Cisco (CSCO). Lots of folks are running Red Flag, the Chinese version of Linux. All this adds up to money that doesn't come back to the U.S.

A: This is all happening atop an architecture that was built in the U.S. The real question is: Will the next wave of technology emerge from China, or will the Chinese follow the innovation that we started in the U.S.? I see no indication [that other countries] are going to drive the next wave of conceptual thinking.

Q: Still, aren't the U.S. exporting its culture of innovation so effectively that it's fueling America's own decline?

A: We want healthy markets that can accept and afford our next level of innovation. Also, there's a huge difference between working on components and working on the vision of how those components fit together to take a technology to the next level. Getting value out of technology is more about conceiving, deploying, and managing complex systems than it is about building devices or components.

Q: Could you give some examples?

A: All of the operating system software -- Linux, Windows, Java, .Net -- is coming from U.S.-based companies. In the U.S., we're all thinking about what the next wave of sensor technologies will look like around RFID [radio frequency identification]. I don't see that wave of deep thinking coming out of anywhere besides U.S. companies and universities. That to me is extremely encouraging.


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