James Governor's Monkchips

From Sun Ray to Sun Bray

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In a recent announcement, Sun disclosed that it had just hired Tim Bray, one of the coauthors of the original XML specification. This looks to be an intelligent move and illustrates that Sun remains more than capable of attracting smart folks to its ranks. Bill Joy may have moved on—but new leaders emerge. Note than Sun also just rehired Andy Bechtolsheim, Sun’s first employee and by all accounts a bang on systems engineer.

Bray though has been hired to help Sun develop enterprise technologies for handling RSS and/or ATOM—that is simple XML-based content syndication technologies. RSS is the stuff that makes blogs interesting, and is increasingly relevant in a world of information publish and subscribe. ATOM is a competing standard recently adopted by Google.

It is a commonplace today that computer companies hire the best and brightest minds to build new technologies. One of the clearest vectors in this case is in the world of standards. Hiring people that drive standards is an opportunity to exert some control of industry direction. It’s like hiring tugboats to pull ocean liners—these folks tend to be very smart and can pull the company towards new opportunities, and hopefully away from the harbor walls. Microsoft has made control of standards a core competence. Witness the recent poaching of folks involved in modeling and UML standardization from IBM.

BEA is another big believer in the approach—Adam Bosworth, a leading light in XML evangelism and related product development, was hired primarily for his product development skills (this is the guy that led the Microsoft Access development team, as well as working on Internet Explorer and other key Microsoft technologies, which is quite some resume), but also because of his likely influence over adoption of technologies such as XML and XQuery.

It is interesting to see Sun step up to the plate in this case. We take our cowls off to John Fowler, Sun Software CTO, for taking the plunge here, and getting Tim to join. Hiring someone can be a visionary act. The next big internet technology wave will likely be based on syndication, for a number of reasons. For one thing we’re all now web content creators, and we want to link our thoughts (laid out on the web) to like (or unlike) minds. For another the industry is beginning to realize that existing transactional models are more restrictive than they need to be for particular use cases. Thus, for example, in the wireless space SMS-based business models, such as selling ringtones, have taken off, even though the messages are not guaranteed to arrive. Sometimes it is easier to deal with the exceptions that slip through the cracks, than to try and build a perfect messaging framework. We can’t assume constant connections and so a push model for information is back on the enterprise agenda, some years after PointCast tanked. Sun wants to build a lead here in a new technology area, and see RSS/ATOM style interactions as a great opportunity to drive its rich client strategy. After all, syndication requires aggregation, and a rich client is a natural place to do that – we can expect RSS/ATOM technology to make its way into Sun’s Java Desktop System (JDS) sooner rather than later. For portal-based aggregation meanwhile Sun’s Java Enterprise System will be a natural home for related technologies. RSS/ATOM won’t just make sense in a web content context—it will also likely become applicable in areas such as software updates.

Perhaps most importantly for Sun, hiring Tim Bray is a clear statement of XML intent. Sun competitors and commentators, including my good self, have often chided Sun for its Java uber alles thinking. In my view XML should really be seen as a peer to Java technology rather than a subordinate. Sun’s competitors claim, for example, that Sun is too wedded to Java to really grok XML Web Services. These kinds of claims are far less likely to stick with folks like Bray onboard. Sun is in the midst of one of its periodic transformations, as it gets ready to ride a disruptive technology wave. XML will be at the heart of that transformation.

Bray may not have the heads down product focus of a Bosworth, but he certainly doesn’t lack XML credibility. The XML desktop as a Sun play? Why not?

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