Leaning against the wall of Eric Schmidt's office is the door of an old Volkswagen Beetle. It's the remnant of an April Fool's joke in which Schmidt's colleagues at Sun Microsystems Inc. assembled the entire car in his office. Schmidt, Sun's chief technology officer, recalls one flaw in the prank: The car wouldn't start. ``They forgot to install the gas tank,'' he said.
In other respects, Sun seems to be running fairly well. About half the server computers on the Internet are Sun workstations, brutally fast machines that can shuttle millions of World Wide Web pages and e-mail messages every day.
Sun's best-known product is Java, a computing technology that allows the same program to run on many different types of machines - PCs, Apple Macintoshes, Unix workstations, IBM mainframes, whatever. Java hasn't made the company a dime yet, but it's well on its way to becoming an industry standard. For instance, wander over to the Corel Web page and you can download a test version of the company's WordPerfect word processor, written in Java.
Be sure you've got plenty of spare time. It's a big program, and you'll be at the mercy of your modem. Bandwidth bulls proclaim this won't be a problem for long. Soon we'll have cable modems that will move data at up to 10 million bits per second, or ADSL, a new kind of phone line with a speed of 6 megabits. Then Java will come into its own.
But don't hold your breath, Schmidt replies. ``Everybody assumes that bandwidth will get uniformly better everywhere, and that's not true,'' he said.
New Englanders seem to be among the blessed, with Continental Cablevision already selling cable modem service in metropolitan Boston. But one door does not a Volkswagen make. Schmidt says the cable guys still lack the infrastructure to handle more than a handful of customers.
Schmidt will gladly sell them the hardware they'll need, but he estimates it will still take five to 10 years to set it all up. By century's end, Schmidt expects up to 100 million home Internet users. But he thinks only about a million of them - 1 percent - will have high-speed access.
Bad news for Java, right? Not necessarily.
The real future of Java lies on internal corporate networks, with their speeds of 10 megabits per second or better. There Java promises to slash the costs of maintaining and upgrading software for hundreds or thousands of users. With Java, you can install new software for the whole company simply by loading a copy onto the network server. The Gartner Group estimates it costs the typical firm $12,000 a year to operate one computer. Sun's people figure Java could drive the cost down to $2,500. Which is why companies like the railroad company CSX Corp. and the flower network FTD are starting to use Java software throughout their organizations in place of traditional programs produced by firms like Microsoft Corp.
Microsoft has noticed, and is fighting back with ActiveX, its method for distributing software over networks. But ActiveX works only on Windows computers. Microsoft says it's working hard to make ActiveX compatible with other computer systems. But Schmidt just sees another VW with a missing gas tank. ``You will be waiting for a very long time, perhaps waiting forever, for full-scale applications that run equally well on Win, Mac and Unix, based on ActiveX,'' he says.
Well, of course he'd say that. Still, Java is giving us run-anywhere software right now, and this week the company will introduce a new line of inexpensive computers specially designed to run Java on corporate networks. And if Bill Gates looks over his shoulder, he might see a Volkswagen in the far distance, getting closer.