Even COOs can get the fear...

Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun, shares with us a few things that send shivers down his spine, from patent abuse to complaints about RFID and a lack of bandwidth
Written by Jonathan Schwartz, Contributor

I'm an optimist. I can't help it. But that doesn't mean there aren't a few goblins and ghouls roaming in the shadows that bug me out. So as jack o' lanterns lit up across North America last weekend, I decided to let you in on a few of the biggest issues that send chills down my spine.

Let's start with phishing. For those that don't know, phishing is replicating a legitimate Web site and using it to collect password or credit information. (PayPal seems like a favorite target.) The Anti-Phishing Working Group just reported that the cumulative number of phishing expeditions more than tripled between May and July this year.

Nearly 5 percent of visitors succumb to the fraud and just volunteer personal information. Worse yet, Amit Yoran, director of the national Cyber Security Division of the Department of Homeland Security, just resigned because he didn't believe that the government saw cybersecurity as a significant-enough priority.

My view is that most enterprises don't take it seriously enough, either. (At Sun Microsystems, our chief information officer used to be the CIO at the Pentagon. We take it that seriously.)

What are you doing about it?
If you're not scared yet, take your worst security breach from last year and imagine that the perps had rehearsed for a year -- because that's what is going on. Measure that fear against the fear of inconveniencing your users with a basic "something you have, something you know" access policy for buildings and networks alike. On average, 30 percent of your former employees still have access to internal systems. That's the industry average. Scary? What are you doing about it?

Consider some folks who take security seriously. Mobile-phone shipments long ago blew by PC numbers. The handset-to-PC ratio is nearly 10 to one -- a gap that's widening every day. And handsets are generating massive value. Compare the value of downloaded music on handsets (it's in the billions of dollars) to the value on desktops (it ain't billions).

Why the difference? Handsets are secure and convenient. Most of the others -- the PCs -- aren't. They're still secured largely with a password. And they're still devices that can be readily stolen with their information intact -- whether from the FBI or your kitchen counter. Lose your laptop, lose your data. Unsecured. It's time you started to look at PCs like the telecommunications companies look at handsets. Not as tools, but as the keys to your house. Don't let your house become haunted.

Litigation gone awry
Spurious patent litigation was a problem well before Sun settled with Kodak. It's been going on for years, and lately, it's steadily gotten much worse. Intellectual property is the foundation of global economies, and legitimate patents are crucial cauldrons in which sweat, brains and dollars can create value. Companies that acquire (often questionable) patents and later wield them against new market participants unleash a destructive force that stifles innovation and prevents participation -- the polar opposite of the purpose for which patents were created.

Everybody suffers from the abuse of the judicial system and the detritus strewn around the market by spurious patent suits. My view is that we issue patents too freely, without sufficient regard to prior art or triviality. We need to raise the threshold for patent approval to prevent abuse of the system. This would ensure that we're safeguarding incentives and rewards for invention while reducing the legions of bad actors stifling competition.

America is at risk of letting cobwebs in our patent system ensnare real innovation, siphoning energy and effort that could otherwise be directed at progress for the planet while the bloodsuckers drain resources.

Sensationalising RFID
My cat has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag embedded between her shoulder blades. So if she gets lost, she can be easily identified. If she were hurt, her medical records could be readily retrieved. Imagine the conversation I had with my child's paediatrician when I inquired about the same safety net for my toddler. "YOU WANT TO DO WHAT?" Not a good visit. Talk about feeling like I had fangs. And meanwhile, some groups are protesting its usage on boxes of detergent.

Is RFID foolproof? No. Does the potential for abuse lurk? Yes. But I'd also argue that the potential for abuse already exists. And rather than simply write off the benefits of RFID, we should face the issue head-on. I intentionally chose a provocative use of RFID to prove a point. But I'm not being flip. The potential of a pervasive network is enormous: supply chain efficiencies, inventory tracking, merchandise placement and theft reduction -- to say nothing of personal safety and other implementations we're likely missing.

Consumer protection groups and government officials are rightly examining every facet of the issue, but let's not allow irrational fears to impede progress. The network is pervasive. Your usage of that network should be voluntary and subject to explicit and well-communicated privacy policies. But you should have the choice.

Underestimating the future
Bandwidth has truly commoditised. It's available everywhere I travel in the world. And it's being used by an extraordinary diverse group of people for an equally extraordinary diversity of applications. The scary part?

No one has enough bandwidth. No one is happy with their network coverage. No one has watched their last digital movie, listened to their last digital audio file, shot their last or highest-resolution digital image or movie. No one has said, "I've had enough. No more bandwidth or network services."

Why is that scary? Just think how large this market is going to become. The biggest companies in the world are those that successfully serve (get this) commodity markets. And from where I sit, having competitive advantages, a balance sheet to fund some truly disruptive business models, and a market looking for competition -- I'm terrified at how large the opportunity is. Are we prepared? Are you?

This is a market that's available to us all if we can get through the things that go bump on the Net: the well-costumed phishers that threaten to haunt our houses, the litigators armed to go tricking -- not treating -- every night of the year, and the reactionaries unnecessarily frightening those with a legitimate interest in furthering opportunities. We get through those issues, and we can focus on scary opportunities. Scary good, not scary bad.

Jonathan Schwartz is president and chief operating officer of Sun Microsystems.

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