Where Sun don"t shine

Von Steven Schwankert

In April, the president of Sun Microsystems, which loyal readers know is one of the Grouch?s favorite companies of all time, made what he clearly thought were some deep statements about the state of technology in India and China. According to Jonathan Schwartz, North America, Europe, and Japan should be afraid, very very afraid.

Quoted in online IT pub The Register, Jonathan Schwartz said, "My view is that (India and China) don?t have to deal with all the legacy systems that Western Europe, the US, and Japan do."

"There are no mainframes. Microsoft Exchange doesn?t have the same presence in the IT landscape. Windows isn?t nearly no (sic) entrenched," he continued.

Well Jon, the Grouch is with you on the Microsoft and Windows part. There?s only one problem: your statement is deeply off-base.

Schwartz also said: "You can?t huddle in Mountain View and expect to be able to understand the market in China...you have to be there."

Senor Schwartz, you are absolutely, 100 percent right. But you didn?t give this speech in Shanghai or Bangalore. You gave it in the USA. The article, written by Ashlee Vance (one of The Register?s Bay Area scribblers) and dated April 26, is datelined San Francisco.

If Schwartz had pledged Sun?s fealty to the Indian and Chinese markets by announcing a takeout curry order from Tandoori Mahal on Kearny Street and a DVD-viewing of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", he could hardly have been more inane. Has the Sun honcho watched "The Matrix" one too many times, fueling nightmares about legacy system ghosts chasing him through endless server farms powered by the energy produced by networked Sun employees?

However, the Grouch has been known to take the blue pill on occasion. Let?s take a clearer look.

On the surface, Schwartz?s comments are accurate. Legacy-system replacement can be horrific ("Budget-Eaters from Planet Microsoft," perhaps?). Ask anyone who has done a "simple" upgrade from one edition of Windows to the next, then multiply that by a few thousand in terms of cost, time, and headaches.

So yes, legacy systems are a problem. But what about having no legacy systems, or no systems at all? China?s physical infrastructure--whether roads, rail, or telecom--is at least functional, at best superb, India?s infrastructure is a different story. China and India should not be lumped together, particularly by spokespeople standing behind a podium in the San Francisco Bay Area.

India still suffers from a critical lack of electronic infrastructure. A nation of over one billion people with fewer than 50 million Internet users? That?s some serious lack, not to mention a sentence fragment. The Grouch has met tech-savvy citizens who?ve spent time in China, then went to India expecting to be blown away, but returning shell-shocked.

In China, top-down Confucian management systems has resulted in a 25-year legacy of multinational companies teaching responsibility and best practices to a new generation of white-collar workers, an ongoing process. But legacy computer systems aren?t China?s main problem. With under three years to go before the Olympics come to Beijing, the city could really use some legacy systems to overcome, especially regarding dealing with foreigners, speaking foreign languages, and roads designed to handle 1000 new cars per day.

Schwartz?s comments did not specifically reference any of Sun?s non-achievements in this part of the world, so his repeated invocation of China and India was likely aimed at Wall Street. It?s not a "pump-and-dump" stock-boosting strategy, but let?s face it, China continues to act as "fiscal Viagra" for investors.

Schwartz said he feels that China and India don?t have the legacy systems to overcome, that Windows doesn?t have the same presence there (a statement not backed by prominent research statistics), and therefore, they can choose seemingly better products, possibly those offered by Sun. It?s his job to promote his firm?s products, but his argument is weak.

Sun isn?t close to being the company it was in the 1990s. Now we have Java in our phones, but so what? Who?s using all those spreadsheet programs that were trotted out to justify Java?s implementation in mobile devices?. What else ya got, guys?

Schwartz and his company should focus on impressing Wall Street by getting their stock price above the single digits, where it has languished for years, before demonstrating its lack of knowledge about international markets, especially crucial ones like China.

Steven Schwankert is a former editor of Computerworld Hong Kong, based in Beijing. He can be reached at tvg@thevillagegrouch.com