Sunday Jul 30, 2006

Lunch with Prime Minister Tony Blair...

I had lunch with Tony Blair today. (And yes, I have been waiting all afternoon to type that.)

I and a few other Silicon Valley leaders were honored to host the first visit ever for a British Prime Minister to Silicon Valley. And he fit right in (wardrobe aside, but he's a world leader after all, and asking him to dress down for Silicon Valley would be like asking Steve Jobs to skip blue jeans and a black shirt - morally objectionable to someone).

The conversation ranged across a variety of topics, from education to cultural competitive advantage, to the government's engagement in delivery of social services via the network.

We only really had an hour together, so I thought I'd jot down a few of the vignettes from our discussion.

The Prime Minister wanted advice on advancing the United Kingdom's position in Europe for research and development. Nearly everyone in the room referenced Stanford and Berkeley's role in making the Valley attractive - as a source of graduates, to be sure, but more as a revolving door for research, partnership, education, dialog. I reminded the Prime Minister that the "SUN" in our ticker symbol, "SUNW" stands for Stanford University. John Hennessy made an interesting reference, quite serious I think, to Stanford's now looking toward the philanthropy of its graduates as a far more lucrative source of return on its intellectual property then traditional licenses or royalties.

I took a quick poll to prove a point - nearly everyone in the room was a product of public school education (myself included). So the opportunities weren't isolated to higher education. (Mr. Jobs followed up to make the reality more painful - showing how few of us were sending our children to public school.)

And lastly, there was a discussion of wage rates and cost of living on the desirability of an economy for R&D.;

My point - shared by many in the room, but not all - was that Silicon Valley's (and certainly Sun's) business is largely insensitive to the price of labor on the world market. As one of my staff members said recently, "when it comes to hiring, this ain't Costco, we don't buy in bulk." If we can bring a product to market three or six or twelve months earlier than planned, wage rates as a percentage of total return aren't even measurable in calculating returns. (What was Bill Joy's starting salary? My point... who cares.)

So if you want to attract companies like Sun to your economy, focus on investing in education, in your students, and in your leaders. Focus on educating your policy makers as to why you're committed to education - not to build presitigious institutions, but to invest in progress, academic as well as economic. Focus on the value of broad based talent as a competitive weapon, don't be distracted by cost reducing labor.

So on behalf of Sun, and our little corner of Silicon Valley, I laud the Prime Minister for taking the time out of a very difficult schedule to visit Silicon Valley. It took courage and time.

What we all recognize to be the basic ingredients of progress.

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All major economies in the world are paying lot of attention towards higher education and how it can affect their competitiveness and technological development. China is probably in the forefront of such initiatives, you can check on article I wrote about it on

Posted by Innovation Zen on July 31, 2006 at 01:07 AM PDT #

Did Tony ask George if it was ok to attend your meeting? Excuse the cynicism but as a Scotsman who is not overly enthused with the (hopefully) soon to be ex-Prime Minister's foreign policy, I think he has more important things to do than worry about technology R&D. If Jonathan, you want to rub shoulders with power brokers, then can I suggest you chose your company a bit more carefully. Do it with those (that may be in the minority) but have a degree of vision and sincerity. Charles Kennedy has some personal issues but he is as good as it gets over here. Back to the point, innovation is far more important than R&D. The UK needs to concentrate on the 'system' rather than a component (important as it may be.) Blair should be asking bigger questions....where did...Scott, Len Bosack, Steve Jobs get the money (and appetite) to invest in technology risk. What is the UK going to do about a UK culture that rewards risk taking in traded options and commodity speculation more than it does in adding value through production?

Posted by roger hughes on July 31, 2006 at 07:35 AM PDT #

Hmmm... The public school tidbit was interesting, especially considering the educated people in the room. I think that good parenting makes more difference than anything else - including education. Separately, glad to see world leaders taking time to spend with you "common folk". ;)

Posted by Toby Getsch on July 31, 2006 at 07:56 AM PDT #

I hope you were all on your best behaviour with our Prime Minister (aka Our Tony).
Trust nobody was speaking to him with a mouth full of bread roll.
Did he bring you all home knitted sweaters too, or is that just a heads-of-state thing?

Posted by ColinJ on July 31, 2006 at 08:54 AM PDT #

Please allow me a rant.

Its great that Sun is doing fine, Java is on the road to being Open Sourced, Sun's hardware business is performing well, Sun is seen as an important contributor and a major player in the economy (judging from your lunch with the PM) etc. But where is "the sexy"?

Last week some MS guy had a statement that Dot Net is killing off Java in the enterprise with numbers like 60% enterprises now using dot net. Before that, we had an article saying how by 2010 JEE will be dead. On Saturday on Digg, there was this link (very popular too) about MS's Photosynth project.There's a lot of buzz about XAML, WPS etc. Java has zero mindshare in the non Java community. Its seen as slow and dated. Whether or not it actually is is not the question here. Where is the buxx for Java?

The only people who say Java is good are people working with Java themselves. For all of MS's shortcomings and geek humor, MS is seen as an innovative company whose ideas tend to be a little half baked, but it works out all the same.

Where is the answer to XAML and WPS, a seamlessly integrated 3D API etc.? What happens when MS codes IE in .Net, integrates it with the .Net framework and has out of the box integration for rich apps. No amount of AJAX will work there. What happens when every company out there demands to have a Web interface like the BBC and Timberland demos for WPS. They won't run on JEE servers, guess where all the development is going to go.

Heck, at this point, there is a known bug in Swing in general and NetBeans in particular where we just get a blank screen when running NetBeans on a box with XGL/Compiz installed. This is preventing people like me (use Eclipse at work and NetBeans for hobbyist Swing development) to use NetBeans on Linux boxes. There has been zero activity on that bug for such a show stopper.

I know Java has some very good projects, on and from Sun research. But there is no buzz about them. Why does Sun not pony up once and for all for a good look and feel for swing, for some killer, or at least very useful apps (read shiny buttons, transparencies, animated 3D transitions etc.). Why not trade in the flexibility of Swing for some ease-of-development?

Give me one good reason why I should continue to bust my hump when so many "easier" tools and technologies are out there in the market. Why should I not go running to the bookstore and pick myself a copy of ,net for dummies? For all the good tech projects sun is putting out, nothing gets any playtime on Digg, or tradeshows or in conferences etc. Why are projects like Aerith, GoMonkey not being marketed aggressively so that us server side (read neanderthal, server room geeks) can also develop something cool in swing to show off to our fellow geeks.

Posted by HC on July 31, 2006 at 09:14 AM PDT #

Jonathan, Sounds like useful contributions by you and others in the room with Tony Blair. The truth is, UK government policy needs to move a long way (not just the present government, but successive governments over a period of decades), in order to: help create a high-tech Entrepreneurial culture around our top universities; and also help companies grow beyond the super-small start-up phase. The challenges are far from trivial. In the late 1970s, the marginal rate of taxation in the UK was 98%! We're still feeling the effects of that, in terms of a lack of super-wealthy philanthropist alumni putting money back into the universities. And companies listed on UK stock exchanges (LSE and AIM) achieve much lower valuations than their US counterparts. All this means that the American model won't work right now. The fundamentals need to be fixed (which is why it's important to have US business leaders explaining what the fundamentals actually are!). Then the government needs to take a long term view; not easy for a government to do in a democracy....

Posted by Simon Brocklehurst on July 31, 2006 at 10:55 AM PDT #

Sounds like an interesting meeting to say the least. I think more global commerce and more global cooperation is what we need. Just look at the innovation and cooperation--and friendships--that comes out of open source. I think Sun is on a good path, but I will agree with part of what the last poster is saying. Java is unbelievably powerful, but it would be nice to see a really simple framework to compete with some of the RAD offerings out there. There are some interesting projects out there currently, but perhaps what they need is more stewardship from Sun--or at least some marketing muscle!

Posted by Larry Roth on July 31, 2006 at 11:04 AM PDT #

what I note is that UK is draggin behind on the R&D capex when compared to Ireland.. Why are the large institutions investing in Irleand rather then the UK's ?? ..yeah and we all know who has what in UK and in Ireland.. so there the very first indicators to development is sitting on the other side.. Tony should be asking Ireland how the heck are they getting to spend all em R&D $$$$

Posted by /pd on July 31, 2006 at 12:51 PM PDT #

> Heck, at this point, there is a known bug in Swing > in general and NetBeans in particular where we > just get a blank screen...

I'm one of the engineers on NetBeans, among other things. I have never heard of this particular problem - and I monitor our bug tracking database closely - please send details to tim dot boudreau at sun dot com

Posted by Tim Boudreau on July 31, 2006 at 06:34 PM PDT #

Johnathan, Did your link drive too much traffic to Isaac Vetter

Posted by Isaac Vetter on July 31, 2006 at 08:36 PM PDT #

When Tony Blair was still in opposition, campaigning to be Prime Minister, one of his catch-phrases was "education, education, education". 9 Years on, Education in the UK is not much improved... If only he had really meant what he said then.

Posted by hugh Fraser on August 01, 2006 at 06:28 AM PDT #

Ireland's business tax rate is about half that of the UK's. Unfortunately, its innovation rate much lower too. The last bit of heavy engineering the Irish produced was the Titanic, so quality of workmanship maybe questionable too. Sun has 7 facilities in the UK: Linlithgow in Scotland is one of Sun's largest manufacturing sites and exports enterprise equipment. Linlithgow is near Edinbugh, Glasgow, and Stirling, all are University cities. Scotland produces more numeric graduates (maths, engineering, physics, IT, etc), per head of population than Germay, Japan, the USA, or anywhere else. NEC's most productive semiconductor plant was here in Silicon Glen, before the Japanese recession forced a retrenchment to the homeland in order to save jobs. Same for Motorola, who had 4 plants here. Seiko manufactured its watch mechanisims cheaper here than in Malaysia, were they are cased. The skilled people are here, as is the floor space, the labour rates are lower than the USA. We do not have the need to fire rockets at our neighbours. What are you waiting for?

Posted by craski on August 01, 2006 at 12:20 PM PDT #

Dear Jonathan,

I'm a lawyer turned web developer. I build legal web apps mainly because the legal establishment doesn't. They are still stuck on the desktop.

I'm a Berkeley grad and got my first taste of computing back in the early 70's at UCLA. I ended up in law by mistake and made an effort over the past 5 years to correct my course. I am completely self-taught (except for engineering 10 and 20 at UCLA).

Maybe it's the Berkeley connection. Maybe living it's living in California. Maybe it was thinking "if a college kid could rock the world with Napster, I could too". I gave up a 20 year career path and $300+/hr to get paid $0 for 5 years doing this. I guess that's the entreprenurial spirit (or stupidity). But I'm really not doing it for the money. I just like the idea that I can help many more people than I ever could before.

I'm very pleased (and impressed) that you now have comments. I just have one suggestion - if you're not going to post under the Java section of your blog, maybe you should take down the link. :)

Congrats on meeting Tony B. FWIW, I can't wait to tell my friends I commented on the Sun Prez' blog! Life's a trip now and Web 2.0 is arriving daily (I saw it coming back when AJAX was DHTML).

Keep up the good works! Best regards,
Jon aka csharporjava

Posted by Jon Rubinfier on August 01, 2006 at 12:40 PM PDT #

I think he [Blair} has more important things to do than worry about technology R&D

Uh, no. Urgent, yes. But long term technology is importantissimo. If you don't have the technological know how, you are way behind as a country. Getting a Silicon Valley should be job one for other leaders.

I applaud Blair, and Chirac, and Mitterand a few years ago, but they have a real job to change attitudes in Europe. I hope I am too pessimistic.

Posted by Bob M on August 01, 2006 at 01:50 PM PDT #

I'd echo the earlier comments about investment in education being the key for the new economy. I'm appalled that my government sees education as a cost centre. Could I send our Prime Minister, John Howard, to meet with Jonathan too? Sorry, but he's too busy celebrating our latest sporting victory (what would they talk about?).

I was fortunate enough to receive a good public education in Australia, then I spent 10 years living in California (PhD in CS from Stanford, work at a start-up afterwards). But now I live in Australia again, where there is considerable drift away from public education... My parents could not afford private schools, but now I need to make the decision for my children. The local public primary school ("grade school" is the US equivalent) is excellent, so there's no question there. But beyond that? No parent wants to disadvantage their children.

I am the product of a time when university education was free in Australia for anyone who could pass the exams to be accepted. Now, students must pay fees upfront, or pay off the resulting debt. I am not confident about standards in this new "user-pays" system. I'm a believer in meritocracy, and I don't know where I'd be without it.

Posted by Kate Morris on August 01, 2006 at 11:56 PM PDT #

I think the colossal American military budget has more to do with Silicon Valleys success then anything else. Does any Silicon Valley company not have contracts with the American military?

Posted by Annonymous on August 02, 2006 at 07:13 AM PDT #

Something I think is seriously lacking worldwide is a place for Joe Soap in the street to be a part of the R&D process. Just because you are not educated does not mean you dont have good ideas - you probably just dont have the whole support structure to design, develop and perfect - costs included.

Posted by Craig Gibson on August 02, 2006 at 07:42 AM PDT #

Sounds like a very interesting meeting. :) I wonder what his stand is on the Lebanon-Israeli war. Not that I want him or Britain to get involved with it. But I just want to know his thoughts.

Posted by Marissa on August 03, 2006 at 11:36 PM PDT #

In our Blog we has a discussion a few weeks ago about why there is only a Silicon Valley, and why there is nothing similar in the old Europe (Spain was our main disccussion). The main conclussion was that, appart from the excellency in education (in Spain there are also some good public universities), the problem is the lack of investors: here people with money rather investing in buying real state properties than investing in innovation and risking their money in start ups...

Posted by Jerry on August 04, 2006 at 04:14 AM PDT #

Well, you should tell him that the British Empire needs a lot of Sun Fire servers.

Posted by sharikou on August 04, 2006 at 08:22 PM PDT #

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