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Sun finds safe hands in R&D reshuffle

Farewell, digital ectoplasm, as Sproull takes charge

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Exclusive Sun Microsystems' has turned to a renowned computer scientist to safeguard its crown jewels - its research division.

Bob Sproull, who founded and led Sun's Boston labs for a decade, has been appointed the new Director of Sun Labs. Sproull succeeds the PT Barnum-quoting Glenn Edens, who after a two-year spell in the post will head up a new unit developing technology for consumer electronics.

It's a case of Sun returning to its traditional values.

Edens made a good argument for putting Sun at the heart of the convergence strategies at the large telcomms companies, and that's a bet that looks even more prescient today, with market consolidation, fiber roll out, and operators such as Verizon offering 'triple play' services.

But the quality of the projects Edens spawned dismayed senior Sun staff who privately criticized them for frivolity and a lack of rigor, drawing comparisons with MIT's Media Lab. Edens' talk of "digital ectoplasm" didn't exactly help - and, to be honest, last year's Open Day at the Computer History Museum at times look a bit like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. All of which detracted from the serious problem-solving research into performance, system resiliance, data integrity, and security on which Sun's future depends. And which we could all use a little bit more of, but which in the "Web 2.0" era, seems to be a low priority for the investment community.

Sproull was instrumental in setting up Sun Labs in 1990 - with Ivan and Bert Sutherland, he'd been a principal at Sutherland and Sproull Associates Inc. A former academic as well as systems designer, Sproull helped develop the Alto computer at Xerox PARC, and co-wrote a classic textbook on computer graphics.

Ivan Sutherland, perhaps the computer industry's most distinguished active research scientist, had been an increasingly rare sighting at Sun Labs during the Edens era. He's now expected to move his team, which is working on asynchronous ("clockless") processors, back to the Mountain View campus.

Sun representatives were unable to comment, or say when or if Sun would make an official statement on the moves.

We expect the news will appear on the Sun "blogs", eventually. Where we would we be without "blogs"? ®

Related link

Bob Sproull's page at Sun Labs

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