McNealy Goes to Washington: Will Unfortunate Controversy Follow?


Mr. McNealy is evidently going to Washington, and God save them and us.


Scott McNealy made and nearly destroyed Sun Microsystems. A smart guy who often seemed to enjoy making fun of his competitors more than he did actually getting his own house in order, McNealy is one of those folks out of Silicon Valley who isn't just odd, but dangerous. Not in the focused and competitive way that Larry Ellison is, but more along the lines of the class clown who can get attention but often has people around him wishing he didn't.

Scott and Sun

The first time I met McNealy in person was at a joint event with another technology giant, Ray Norda. This was after Norda's prime and he was clearly slipping mentally, placing much of the weight for the joint announcement on McNealy's shoulders. Instead of focusing on what they'd intended to announce, McNealy went off on Microsoft and its "hair ball" approach to technology and products. Norda was like a deer caught in the headlights and didn't know what to do.


The effort failed, but McNealy got more anti-Microsoft ink. Over the years that followed, I've had a number of friends who worked for Sun and have had a chance to talk to a wide variety of Sun customers. Generally, the folks who worked inside Sun wanted McNealy gone because he had outstayed his usefulness and was taking Sun down a path painfully free of strategic focus. For the Sun customers, the issue was they got lots of information on why Microsoft sucked from McNealy but virtually nothing on why they should buy Sun products, and generally migrated to HP or IBM as a result.


To me, McNealy's behavior seemed insanely foolish because, as the head of a hardware company, he really wasn't in competition with Microsoft as much as he was in competition with IBM, HP and Dell, and his behavior, while harmful to Microsoft, seemed to be actually helping his hardware competitors -- each of which grew to eclipse Sun over time. It was like watching a quarterback spending his time trash talking the hockey team instead of calling plays.


Sun is now being run by Jon Schwartz, who has a software background and appears to be trying to run Sun as a software company. HP, IBM and Dell have been very pleased with this and it clearly hasn't been going well of late for Sun. There have been ongoing rumors that Sun is looking for a replacement.

Executive privilege

According to McNealy -- and this alone is a problem -- he has been asked to write a white paper on the benefits of open source technology. Now the idea that the President of the U.S. would even read a white paper is about as likely as pigs flying, but let's put that aside for the moment. This kind of thing isn't a news event; if the President wants your opinion, he generally doesn't want you running around turning it into a press event. My guess is there are likely other things on his agenda that rank higher than code, and that he has other folks, like his unannounced CTO, to focus on that.


But a bigger problem may be the taint of impropriety and unneeded controversy that McNealy may bring to the process. Decisions surrounding software, or any government purchase, should be made based on what is best for the American people. This includes low cost, U.S. jobs, government revenue (taxes) and security.


In most cases, the answer will likely vary a great deal, depending on the project and the related needs that surround it. In other words, it won't be simply all one way or the other. That means the process must be beyond reproach or the side that loses is likely going to scream foul and imply underhanded dealings. McNealy's initial deal with Microsoft and the European Union still smells because of the amount of money exchanged and, as a result, you have to wonder if he is marketing his position with this paper as I write this. If there is one thing the Obama administration doesn't need any more of at the moment, it is controversy related to folks selling things that shouldn't be for sale.

Wrapping Up

I think Sun's chairman needs to get out of the spotlight for a while and, if the U.S. President wants his advice, he should give it quietly and honestly. Sun is in survival mode and needs to find a reason to continue after it figures out what business it is really in. Going after both Microsoft and Adobe right now with JavaFX just seems really badly timed given how well HP and IBM are doing by focusing on Sun's core market. In the end, I doubt more controversy will help either the U.S. or Sun.


At the moment, everyone needs to focus a bit more on getting stuff done.