Sun Microsystems CEO pushes 'open source' government

Silicon Valley and the nation's capital have more in common than meets the eye, Scott McNealy says.

Silicon Valley and the nation's capital have more in common than meets the eye, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy said Wednesday during a keynote speech at the federal computer show FOSE in Washington.

McNealy recited a humorous "Top 10" list of similarities, including both regions boasting claims to fame as "high-cost centers" and "trying to protect our ports." He added that "we both invented the Internet," referring to a famous quip by former Vice President Al Gore.

Turning somber, McNealy said the greatest challenges facing the technology industry and government are security threats, finite resources and the global demand for energy. He said government computer systems lack integration and run outdated systems.

He said government's inclination to use proprietary standards creates barriers to improving integration among agencies. "We believe in open interfaces, open source code," McNealy said.

On Friday, Sun and more than 35 other organizations and technology companies formed the Open Document Alliance to improve access and retrieval of government e-documents.

The mission is to enable governments to offer documents and records "independent of the applications" that will be able to be accessed today, as well as the future. They support the use of open document formats based on extensible markup language, or XML, including text and spreadsheets.

"Moving to this format will ensure you won't need to buy Windows 98 to see your documents," McNealy said. Other members of the alliance include Corel, IBM, the Open Society Institute, the Massachusetts High Tech Council and OpenForum Europe.

Other government issues for Sun include access to H-1B visas for highly skilled, temporary employees, export controls, and patents, McNealy told a handful of reporters after his speech.

On the visa issue, he said preventing skilled engineers and scientists from working in the United States has an economic impact. "What are we thinking?" he said of the current H-1B visa cap, which currently is set at 65,000.

That approach could have prevented people like Sun co-founders Andy Bechtolsheim and Vinod Khosla from remaining in the United States after receiving advanced degrees, he said. Instead, in 1982, they were able to create an "enormous amount of economic value and jobs" in the United States.

McNealy said competitiveness is not just an American issue but one that needs to be addressed on a global scale. Today, 3 million new people are experiencing the Internet each week, but by 2007, three out of four people still will not have an Internet connection, he said.

"We've got to get them on," he said. "One of our causes at Sun is to bridge that digital divide."

Sun also is working to promote greater access to education. The company has launched an online global education and learning community, where open-source, Web-based classes are available for educators, parents and students. More than 2,700 members worldwide have joined the community, and 100 projects have gone online since it was launched in 2004, he said.

The online classes are "self-paced, on-demand, free, modifiable and localizable," McNealy said. "We put it on the Web because the Web is a great invisible hand."