Catching Up

I've been jumping around the Valley like a hoptoad on a hotplate for the past couple of weeks (an apt simile, given the Bay Area's recent butt-scorching temps), but I'm taking five to catch up on a few local events that didn't get much play in the press.

Scott McNealy: Act II

I was reminded recently that the ''post-Gates'' era is also the post-McNealy era. Scott McNealy, former CEO of Sun Microsystems, revealed that he would be stepping away from the day-to-day operations of the company he co-founded just about a month before Bill Gates made a similar announcement. McNealy doesn't have as much cash to give away as his long-time rival (actually, no one does), but he's doing the ex-chief-exec thing with crusty aplomb.

For example: McNealy was on hand in Palo Alto last week to cut the figurative ribbon on the new Stanford University Center for Computational Earth and Environmental Science (CEES). An extension of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences, the CEES will house an interdisciplinary research program focused on big compute problems, such as climate change. And it'll be equipped with Sun hardware and software.

The center grew out of a partnership among Stanford's earth sciences school, the U.S. Geological Survey, and several private companies, including Sun, Cisco Systems, 3DGO, Chevron, and BP.

Sun contributed $3 million worth of stuff to the center's new High Performance Computing facility. After the opening ceremonies, CEES IT manager Dennis Michael showed off three six-foot stacks of Sun Opteron and SPARC servers running the Solaris OS, which will serve most of the HPC needs of the students and facility working at the center. The CEES is also connected to the Sun Grid Network, which means that anyone with a PayPal account can buy computer cycles on the massive grid for about a buck an hour.

''We think the big problems are going to get solved with this super computing model,'' McNealy said. ''...We're making supercomputing available to any and everyone.''

See? Helping humanity while flogging the product; that's how you do it.

BTW: Mr. Gates has not ignored the school that pioneered the study of electrical engineering. Stanford University's Gates Computer Science Building, which opened in 1996, is the result of a $6 million gift from the Microsoft founder. (I heard it was some loose change from his sock drawer.)

Yahoo Opens Up its IM System, Hacks Itself

Yahoo just announced that it is opening up its instant messaging platform further to allow outside developers to extend the system's functionality. Along with the latest beta release of Yahoo Messenger with Voice, the company brought out some serious dev tools for creating plug-ins for the IM system.

This company has been nurturing its fledgling developer community for a while now. Among other things, Yahoo has been providing APIs for its IM network to, for example, expose presence and buddy-list information on a Web site. But according to VP of product strategy Bradley Horowitz, the new tools will provide even broader access to the platform.

''We're taking one of our core products,'' he said. ''Not something at the margins. Not something from an acquisition. But something that touches the heart of what we do at Yahoo in terms of connecting people. And we've brought that same spirit of openness and innovation and inclusion to the developer community and the world. It's a testament to how serious we are about the Yahoo Developer Network.''

Horowitz was speaking to a group of bloggers invited to Yahoo headquarters in Sunnyvale for an early peak and a free lunch. With the phrase ''that same spirit of openness,'' Horowitz was referring to Yahoo's Hack Day, which we (the bloggers) had just learned was starting at noon that very day—and about which we just wouldn't shut up. Horowitz eventually got us focused on the IM stuff, and I'm glad he did. But I also have to say that this Hack Day thing is easily one of the coolest corporate cultural phenomena I've heard about in years.

Yahoo's Hack Day is a combination pressure-release valve and instant R&D mechanism. It's a 24-hour period during which everyone in the company stops business as usual and ''innovates''—in other words, they take their pet ideas and work them into prototypes. Everyone in the company is invited to participate, including non-developers. If a bizdev guy has a great idea, he/she gets out there and recruits engineers and coders to help. At the end of the 24 hours, employees gather in the big cafeteria to present their projects to senior execs. They have about 90 seconds, Horowitz says, because they get 200-300 presentations.

This is the company's third Hack Day. The concept was reportedly introduced last year by JotSpot, the application wiki, and Yahoo is running with it.

Of course ''hack'' in this context is not a pejorative, Horowitz hastened to emphasize. ''Hack Yahoo is about fuck the process, end run it, get shit done, and make it so compelling that they can't but say yes.''

The Hack Day credo is equally impellent: ''Mash up or shut up.'' They even had T-shirts. 

Open Source Chat

Meanwhile, up the road at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, The Churchill Club held an executive roundtable on the state of open source software. (Full disclosure: I'm a member of the museum, not the club.)

It was an articulate and often entertaining group that included Andy Astor, CEO of EnterpriseDB; Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Labs; Rich Green, EVP of Sun Microsystems's software division; Kim Polese, CEO of SpikeSource; and the ever incendiary Marc Fleury, SVP and GM of Red Hat's new JBoss Division. The panel was moderated by Sarah Lacy, who covers OSS for BusinessWeek.

The conversation, though, ranged over some fairly well trodden territory: How will established software companies' business practices change in response to the increasing enterprise adoption of OSS? In which cases will the closed source development and proprietary licensing duo remain the preferred model for commercial success? When is ''good enough'' open source software good enough for mission-critical enterprise use? What will continue to motivate communities of open source developers to contribute their time, effort, and expertise, and how should these communities be nurtured?

Still, it was interesting to hear from the guys in the open-source trenches.

Andy Astor offered the most cogent observation of the evening on commercial open source: ''The right question to ask [about commercial open source] is, 'What's working?''' he said. ''What has long-term capability? What lasts? We're watching the capitalist model at work with a new brick in its foundation.''

Astor's company is an open-source relational database management system provider. EnterpriseDB was built on PostgreSQL, and the company competes with Oracle and MySQL.

''When we started our company,'' Astor added later, ''it was not the advent of open source that made this business attractive, it was the acceptance of open source that made it attractive.''

Kim Polese, who also founded Marimba and was the original product manager for Java, managed to field more than a few questions about the efficacy of her company's evolving business model without seeming defensive (which I count as no mean feat).

''The game has changed completely,'' she said. ''There is no rulebook, no guidebook to consult... We're having to be creative here on how we bring these products to market.''

The company she runs today, SpikeSource, is developing OSS support services for small- and medium-sized businesses and value-added resellers.

Marc Fleury, inimitable founder of JBoss, which Red Hat recently acquired and which he still manages, can't help but add spice to any panel he's a part of. Fleury gets dinged a lot for his often confrontational comments (I've dinged him myself), but his bluntness can be downright refreshing. And the truth is, he knows his business. He weighed in on the subject of commercial open source.

''When you talk about [open source in] enterprise markets, it's about trusting the brands,'' he said. ''If you're a global 2000 [company], Ubuntu and what army of Zulus is going to support you? At the fringes of innovation, in the kernel community, you have that raw developer who likes to do his own thing... For the enterprise we see the reverse.''

Answering a question from the audience about which big commercial software vendor—Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, or SAP—would do the best job of coping with an increasingly open-sources world, he chose what might be the unlikeliest of the four: Microsoft.

''Why? They hate it,'' he said. ''They're not confused with it. When everybody else is falling all over themselves—we like, but we don't like it, we're conflicted... We've got WebSphere children's edition and then enterprise edition... Microsoft says, we hate your guts on the model front, but we'll collaborate with you... [O]nce they put their arms around 'we hate this thing and there's no need to discuss this any longer, but how can we work with it to service the customers,' they do a good job.''

His tortured syntax notwithstanding, given Microsoft's announcement this week that it has launched its new CodePlex collaborative Web portal, the guy seems almost prophetic.