Sun CEO McNealy takes the stage at Air Force show

Scott McNealy, chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems Inc., took the opportunity of making a keynote address at the Air Force Information Technology Conference to predict yet again the demise of the PC.

Kicking off "Industry Day" last week at the show in Montgomery, Ala., McNealy predicted that the Defense Department eventually would stop buying traditional desktop PCs as part of its move toward network-centric computing.

McNealy said DOD should not burden its deployed forces with clumsy desktop PCs laden with millions of lines of code. "We have to start thinking about appliances," he said. "Why do we think giving everyone a personal mainframe is a good idea?"

The future of DOD computing will be based on "simple devices" that provide users with the reliability, predictability and convenience that most people have come to take for granted with common utilities, such as water, McNealy said.

"How predictable is it that when you turn on the [faucet], water will come out?" McNealy asked. The reason we must send people to school to learn how to use computers is because "we've made [computers] too complicated," McNealy said. Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT 5.0 will have 40 million lines of code, and "there's no way those 40 million lines of code are debugged," he said.

Sun is presenting the government user with a different computing model that does not rely on "heavy" browsers that take up precious disk space, McNealy said. Sun's model is "to set up the functional equivalent of the telephone switch, called a SPARC server," which can make services such as calendaring and scheduling, e-mail, databases and news available "to anybody, anywhere, anytime...from any device in a secure [and] safe way from a Java browser," he said.

Java, Sun's cross-platform, write-once, run-anywhere programming language, is bringing simplicity back to computing and will be the force behind DOD's shift to network-centric warfare, McNealy said. In network-centric warfare, one of the department's major initiatives, soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will be able to take advantage of an IT-based communications grid to send and receive critical information.

Eventually, DOD will stop buying PCs and will buy IT services instead, McNealy said. "The same way you buy dial tone for most of your employees, you're going to buy Web tone," he said. These "Web tone" services will be provided by commercial telephone companies, cable TV providers and satellite and cellular phone service providers, he said.

"You won't have to use soldiers to run your infrastructure," McNealy said.

Central to McNealy's vision for a global grid of thin clients is the use of "personalized, custom Web sites for everyone...not personal computers," he said. Set-top boxes require zero administration and are second nature to operate, according to McNealy. "My 2-year-old did it a year ago," said McNealy, referring to the simple act of operating a TV remote control.

During his hour-long presentation to a packed house of Air Force techies, McNealy guided the audience through a Java-based e-mail demonstration that used what he called an "Enigma Card," a smart card loaded with a Java chip that holds McNealy's identification, authentication and personal World Wide Web page preference information.

The use of the smart card allows roaming users to make use of any device that sits on the network as if it was their own machine, McNealy said. In addition, all the security processes, including identification and authentication, are done offline and are not available on the network to hackers. Sun has issued smart cards to all its employees to track phone usage and various other activities, he said.

To achieve the level of simplicity required by deployed forces, McNealy said, DOD "should ban [the use of Microsoft] Word and Powerpoint forever." According to McNealy, to issue the order to "attack" using simple ASCII text requires only 48 bits of data, something that could fit on a small, Java-based handheld device. Using Microsoft Word, however, requires more than 90,000 bits, McNealy said.

"The worst is when you do it in Powerpoint," which requires 258,048 bits, he said. "Talk about a pig through a python.... [By then] the war is over. You lost."

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