XML Guru Speaks Out on New Role at Sun

By Steve Gillmor  |  Posted 2004-03-16

XML Guru Speaks Out on New Role at Sun

Extensible Markup Language co-author Tim Bray has joined Sun Microsystems Inc. as technical director of the companys software group, reporting to Sun Software Chief Technology Officer John Fowler. Just a week after Sun Software chief Jonathan Schwartz revealed Suns move toward RSS(Really Simple Syndication), Bray discussed his charter at the intersection of RSS, XML and advanced search with eWEEK.coms Steve Gillmor.

What are your responsibilities and goals?

To a large extent, thats to be determined. Sun is real interested in a lot of the same things that I am. If you look at where things are going in the area of search and XML and RSS, you kind of smell a bit of a nexus happening in there with lots of exciting things coming out of it, and not just Jon but some other Sun VIPs are pretty hot on this stuff. And clearly this is a space that I come from. Im deliberately being a little bit vague, but if you look at my background, its fairly obvious the kind of things that Ive worked on over the years. If you look at Jons offices mandate, its very general, and the fact that I have a fairly broad spectrum of interests and experience was of interest to them.

Do you share the view that RSS represents a great opportunity for a new rich client center of the desktop?

I tend to be more of a server back-end kind of guy, and Im interested in the information flows. Now clearly, any modern desktop that doesnt include tools both for aggregating and writing logs and syndication feeds isnt as good as it could be. So clearly theres work there—but Im also interested in the back end. Im good friends with Dave Sifry over at Technorati, and there are a lot of potentially game-changing things coming down the pipe, and I dont think anybodys quite smart enough to see exactly what they all are at this point. But its a space that you want to be in and watch like a hawk and make sure youre doing the right things. I think youre one of the leaders on this, Steve, and Im preaching to the choir here.

One of the things Dave Sifry and I have been working on is the notion of attention …

Absolutely. I think thats potentially super hot stuff.

How do you think that would vector with what Sun is interested in doing?

I think Sun is in the early stages. Sun is already publishing a bunch of RSS feeds, and theres a lot more work that remains to be done on those RSS feeds. I cant sit here and say, "Yeah, attention is the way that were jumping," but the fact that theyre bringing me on board is an indication that were going to be taking this area really seriously and putting some cycles on figuring out what the right way to jump is.

Next page: A Big Idea

A Big Idea

You referred on your blog to looking forward to "having enough cycles" for a Big Idea. What is it?

As Jim Gray has been saying for some time now, "Memory is the new disk. Disks are the new tape." And I think enterprise applications arent architected taking that fact into mind, and I have definite ideas how they could be.

Again, how would that relate to what your duties at Sun would entail?

Well, clearly, anything that makes the delivery of enterprise applications better, faster, more robust is interesting to Sun, and the fact is that the enterprise computing infrastructure has been changing due to Moores Law and so on, and the falling price and rising size of memory tends to exceed the expansion in the rate of data in recent years. And so I think there are some very interesting and productive changes to be made in some of the infrastructure, particularly the Java infrastructure, to potentially take advantage of that. Very very early stuff, just experimental, but keeping me awake at night.

What about peer-to-peer technologies such as JXTA—have you looked into that?

Only trivially. That has some roots of its thinking in the old Linda [parallel programming coordination language] technology that [David] Gelertner did years and years ago, which I thought was wonderful and which I was astounded never changed the world. But I have been working so hard on search and user interface and things like that for the last couple of years that I havent had time to go deep on JXTA.

Your goals: near, mid and long range?

Theyre all the same. My goal is to have an impact on the way people use computers.

What did John Fowler say to you that convinced you this was the right way to turn at this point?

Johns a really smart guy, and we had an extended conversation and discovered that we have lots of points where we have shared perceptions of the world. And he painted a picture of the way that his group works, and he also disclosed some of the very interesting directions that Sun is thinking of moving in, and it all just lined up really well with the things Ive been thinking a lot about.

What do you see as the resources Sun can bring to bear, competing with Microsoft Corp. in particular?

Sun has fantastic resources in terms of the population of really smart people. The problem of how does one compete with Microsoft is a problem of global importance thats not limited to what any one company does. Speaking for myself, not Sun, the way current information technology is priced is just crazy. The whole notion of doing your IT infrastructure out of the capital budget, capitalizing and depreciating that stuff, is just stupidly bad accounting and also bad business. One of the things that turns my crank is some of the things Sun has been saying about the right way to go about pricing infrastructure.

Per-citizen licensing, etc.?

One way or another, the world is going to end up with something just like that.

And you think Sun has the resources to pull that off?

Well, they do now that Im there. [laughs] I think its a good bet.

Next page: Standards, Standards, Standards

Standards, Standards, Standards

How will the work you continue to do with XML standards fit into your new responsibilities?

Obviously I have a lot of experience in the standards trenches and how those processes work—what works and doesnt work and so on. I totally am not a full-time standards geek, but obviously Im willing to pitch in and help, working with the standards processes when something needs help in that space.

Whats your take on Dave Winers [co-author of the RSS format] offer to merge the RSS and Atom standards efforts?

For more on Winers efforts, read "RSS Backer Seeks Merged Syndication Format."

I understand that [the Atom group] is planning to set up an IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force] working group, which strikes me as a profoundly good idea. IETF, W3C [World Wide Web Consortium], OASIS [Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards], I dont care, but I do think that syndication technology does need to move forward by way of some more formal process. So I am 100 percent in favor of this notion of going to the IETF.

To the extent that Winer is open to that, thats a good thing for RSS continued strength?

Totally. Now, my understanding is, based on the published RSS specifications, that it is frozen and cant be changed. Im not sure exactly how to get around that. But its pretty clear that RSS is destined to become a vehicle for a large and interesting new class of applications. One way or another, theres going to have to be evolution. I havent worked out what needs to be done, but Im pretty darn sure that someones going to have to put some time into that.

Speaking of this new class of applications, many people have been interested in the idea of routing around the dead end of e-mail.

I think e-mail can be saved. That one actually turns my crank a little less than others, but there is a certain class of applications that is not well-served by e-mail that is in fact well-served by RSS.

Such as?

Some of those things that fall into the publishing basket. I find, both for dealing with bloggers who publish irregularly and with the New York Times and the BBC, that RSS is the appropriate way to deal with that. I also think that RSS is going to have a huge application in simple things like watching my bank account and credit card statements—things that are updated irregularly but you want to know when they are, but are not person-to-person individual messages. The spectrum where RSS is a winner is bigger than people suspect at the moment.

Event notification would be a larger bin that it would be put into, right?


Whats your take on social software? Mine is that that its at an early phase of aggregating RSS, instant messaging, presence, location and so on.

I just totally dont get it. Im on LinkedIn and Orkut—never actually used either—watched one entrepreneur somewhere use LinkedIn to get through to me. Maybe Im not the right demographic, but I just dont see the value proposition.

But as a real-time architecture, as people move from e-mail along a continuum across instant messaging, videoconferencing, blogging, real-time publishing …

There I do agree. I wrote on ongoing a few months ago about the spectrum of communication. Youve got your phone, instant messenger, e-mail, RSS, straight Web publishing—I still have lots of stacks of paper in my life—video phone, as you pointed out. And for ad hoc communication the cost of all of these means that the communication is now more or less equal—and more or less zero per unit. As a culture, we are still in the very early days of figuring out what the right modes of communication are to fit into the various kinds of communication that we do. Were making this up as we go along at this point, and its a fascinating space to be in.

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