His appointment coincides with Sun Labs' 15-year celebration. CNET News.com recently spoke with Sproull about his ambitions for Sun Labs and the general state of computer research in an increasingly global economy.
Q: I noticed looking through your CV (curriculum vitae) that you had put in some time over at Xerox PARC. What years did those include?
Sproull: They were in the glory days. I arrived at Christmas 1973 and I left in August '77.
Present at the creation, so to speak.
Sproull: Oh yeah! It was a great time. I still can't imagine how we got all the stuff done in what I think of as three and half or four years.
Which projects were you involved in?
Sproull: I actually was one of the main guys writing the Alto operating system, which was kind of interesting. And I was one of the guys on the first so-called Dover laser printer. I did all the software for that and part of the hardware and that was really pretty magical. We had this little tiny machine that was running, putting out 15 megabits a second of video that turned into page images. So at 384 bits per inch, we were printing a page a second from a tiny little Alto.
I hope you took pictures when you were there.
Sproull: Well, somebody did.
Now you're running the show as top guy at Sun Labs. What are your ambitions? Do you ultimately want to rival something like Microsoft has?
Sproull: In terms of a lab, no, not at all. When we started (15 years ago) Sun was a $3 billion company. But Scott (McNealy) felt that we really needed eyes and ears to be sure that Sun avoided surprises. Product engineers put their heads down--for good reason--and focus on getting a job done and the product out on time. They're not always looking around as much as they should. The second point is that if you're not making real contact with the rest of the technical community, you're not listening hard and not quite the right way if you don't have some research of your own.
So what, then, is your grand ambition here?
Sproull: Actually, we don't have a grand ambition right at the moment. We're fairly tactically oriented. I would say that in general, the industry has kind of lost a grand ambition. The last big thing was essentially outfitting the Web. All this Web 2.0 stuff is a refinement that kind of got lost in the land rush initially, and people forget that it had to be interactive.
Do you think we've run into just a stale period or have all the big ideas been thought of? Where do you see the industry right now in terms of innovation?
Sproull: I see a lot of the incremental motion, which occasionally crosses thresholds. A good example, I think, is all this convergence stuff. We've been talking about convergence for years and it's been happening faster and faster. I think you're beginning to see thresholds crossed. For example, this is a simple example, but the whole digital camera business--the threshold was crossed long ago and now people think of photography or taking pictures in a completely different way and you'll never go back.
Moore's Law isn't over. We're still seeing lots more microelectronics migrating into everything, especially in embedded systems and automobiles, etc. So those incremental changes keep happening and there will be the occasional threshold.
Right now, competition for talent is always pretty fierce. How do you attract the superstars--especially when right now the stock is trading around the $5 level?
Sproull: Well that's a difficult question. Certainly the thing that attracted me to Xerox was the ability to learn from a lot of other really bright people far brighter than I was. I like to think that we still have a good deal of that (at Sun). I think that Sun is still uniquely advantaged to do certain things, and people who want to do those things will come to Sun.
Is the lab going to be a place where you encourage your researchers to do theoretical work they find interesting, or will you require that their work have some near-term practical relevancy to Sun's business?
Sproull: That's something that we have always balanced. We are going to be valued and funded by Sun in the long run only if we add value to Sun. That means ultimately transferring value and technology into Sun's businesses or helping Sun build new businesses. But at the same time, we mustn't let Sun's current product directions or products completely determine what we do.