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Sun's newest star lauds the PT Barnum way

Gadgets, sensors and wealth

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Edens strongly defended the have-a-go heroics of his new "amateur" approach.

If Sun Labs looks more like a product shop, then that's no accident. The examples Edens cites showcase real commercial services that Sun customers can pick up and use, such as offerings designed to show fixed line operators how they can do more with their existing infrastructure. Some of these are quite plausible.

"In OfficeCentral we're showing a lot of new things you can do with conferencing. Teleconferencing is a multi billion dollar business, we've been showing a secure, stereo, multichannel audio conferencing demo. Stereo telephony totally changes the nature of conferencing calls."

The OfficeCentral demo has years of deep thinking on human interaction, trust and identity informing it. But how representative it is of the newer generation of projects is debatable. In the rush to produce a demo, the knowledge gained may be lost, or never even noticed.

Art for Art's Sake

While several researchers have been "helped to find new careers" during Edens tenure, we were delighted to hear of an new appointment.

Sun will appoint an Artist-in-Residence, for the very first time. That's because, Glenn explains, "two things inform technology over the years: art and the military."

"The military has driven the internet, through the development of semiconductors, and artists have driven the web," he says. "It's a combination of the two."

By this logic, Sun's next hire should be a "Soldier-in-Residence" - a quite tantalizing thought. Just as the Artist-in-Residence could sculpt inspirational artwork or fashion giant murals to provide the engineers with a muse, so a soldier could be hired to run around the campus bayonetting bags of straw, or if he's really resourceful, wiring up the gardener to the electricity supply.

But rather than reaching back to a renaissance man such as Leonardo, we were astonished to hear Glenn summon a more recent inventor for inspiration.

"It wasn't PT Barnum who said you 'never lost money underestimating the taste of America' - it was someone else, and it's attributed to him," said Glenn. "But the neat part of all this technology is that society sorts out over the long haul what's important."

For a contemporary PT Barnum, we mused, one need look no further than the MIT Media Labs' former chief Nicholas Negroponte. The Labs' founder cheerfully glad-handed corporate sponsors for years, and he even thought horizontally, creating a kind of gadget supplement - Wired magazine - to showcase this work.

Today there is no shortage of media outlets eager to seize on gadgets Wired is still with us, and both USA Today and National Public Radio can be relied on to fill editorial space with news of the latest wonders. But in the end only one of these two hit upon a reliable cash cow - and it wasn't Negroponte.

Empire of the Sensors

So which way will Glenn Edens' take the good ship Sun?

At times, his analysis sounds so rigorous, exacting and succinct you can't help but agree. MP3 has been a disaster for audiophiles, he says, but he optimistically believes that this will be cured when the networks have more bandwidth. Interactive TV will always be doomed because people want to be told a story - "film making works because people want to be told a story". Digital TV has made channel flipping impossible, because the systems aren't fast enough.

"We need to get control of the spam, get QoS nailed, and get the whole thing converted to IP. That's for the rest 3 to 4 years. It took 50 years to get the POTS to built up to be the platform for the growth of the nation. We're not there with the internet."

Quite so.

Then again, there were times when it sounded like the captain needed better navigation. When we raised the prospects for the web's survival, Glenn was horrified. It's a rational calculation that because of the failure to find a consensus to fix its many technical inadequacies, and commercial pressures from vested interests, we suggested that the web as it is may only have a slim chance of surviving. But Sun's Media VP looked as if we'd invented a new and horrifying blasphemy.

The problem with Edens' new Media Unit is that he must kill the internet he cherishes in order for it to succeed. If there's one thing Sun's biggest "media" customers such as Vodafone and DoCoMo understand, it's that they understand what sells, and preserving an "open internet" isn't exactly their top priority. Something has to give.

And once or twice he sounded like a man who's rowed so far out to sea, that even the Coast Guard can't help.

Edens urged us to look at one example of the web's wonders, a graphical interface that uses Google as its data source, and plots all the occurrences of numbers between one and a million.

"It's a beautiful display that allows you to scroll through and see a 2D representation of all the numbers ... and it's just astonishing what you can learn."

"You can just scroll through this, and see a frequency of an occurrence of a number. It's black or white with all these green in the middle. So you go to one of these white hotspots in the middle of nowhere and go, 'What's that number about? Why does the that number occur so often in nature?

"Because the web is now kinda nature." ®

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