Sun's Gage looks ahead

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s chief scientist likes to show off his gadgets.

Sun Microsystems Inc.'s chief scientist likes to show off his gadgets.

Looking more like a college professor than a former radical activist who landed on Nixon's enemies list for organizing anti-Vietnam War rallies, the gray-bearded John Gage is happy to pull out a gaggle of smart cards -- each embedded with a Java chip, some with radio antennae -- and tell you how they're going to change the world.

'They [Microsoft] should probably learn to keep their mouths shut about this and just comply when a government tells you you're behaving in a way that pro-hibits people from innovating.'
-- Sun Chief Scientist John Gage

"The days of the operating system running on one machine are over," says Gage, who's the company visionary in charge of linking Sun's (Nasdaq:SUNW) geekheads with politicians and businessmen trying to tackle the ever-changing role of technology in society.

"Small intelligence, very small intelligence running on a network that's globally distributed will change the way we do things," Gage says, pointing to his smart cards and describing how he can move money across the continents without ever interacting with a bank.

But if you think that's a big deal, hold onto to your mousepad. Within three years, Sun will debut technology that will forever alter the way we interact with our computers, according to Gage, who joined the company in 1982.

"We'll be able to make the display surfaces very different than the ugly TV tubes that we have today that are fragile, eat a lot of electricity, give off a lot of heat," Gage says. "We want something as close to paper as we can get."

But more natural display surfaces aren't enough for Gage. He also wants more natural interaction -- three-dimensional displays on a table top and walls that immerse users in pictures and audio.

Gage wants people to dive into the computing experience rather than merely stare at a machine.

"We live in a world where we hear things all around. Why aren't these stupid computers giving us that ability?" Gage asks earnestly.

Partly because of Microsoft, Gage thinks, although he does not say so directly. Sun, along with companies like Netscape Communications Corp., and Oracle, is in a bitter struggle with Microsoft over the future of computers. While Microsoft wants to keep the industry PC-focused so it can hawk more copies of its operating system, Sun wants it to expand to millions of connected devices so it can sell more heavy-duty computers and license more copies of Java.

Gage is highly critical of Microsoft's claims that it's a unique innovator in the industry. He says those statements -- and the company's irreverent responses to the DOJ antitrust suit filed against it -- will only get it into hot water.

"The more they thrash about, the more trouble they get into," he said. "They should probably learn to keep their mouths shut about this and just comply when a government tells you you're behaving in a way that prohibits people from innovating."

Sun itself is embroiled in a lawsuit with Microsoft. Sun sued in October accusing the Microsoft of illegally tinkering with its Java programming language. Gage said legal action was the company's only remedy to prevent the Microsoft from altering Java and claiming its products were Java-compatible.

"They believe they're dominant, so they can just do things like this," Gage said. "You have to treat them as you would a spoiled child. You have to decide, do I spank them or give them some candy? There's no good answer to this, and law-suits certainly aren't a good answer."