SUN's Father was a Muthuh

I am now going to try not to talk about Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems' departing CEO, as though he had just died. We all do that (we in the press) when such a high-profile chief exec steps down. We even call the speculation and analysis that follows his/her departure a ''post-mortem.''

But McNealy is definitely still kicking, and though he's handing the big baton to current prez and COO Jonathan Schwartz, he's staying on as chairman of the board. So I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of Sun's newest full-time evangelist.

What we heard during his 22 years at Sun's helm earned McNealy a reputation both for wisecracking about the competition and testiness with the press. News stories about this week's leadership shift at Sun have referred to McNealy as ''prickly,'' ''pugnacious,'' ''outspoken,'' ''brash,'' ''colorful,'' ''controversial,'' and ''acerbic.'' In other words, not boring, and occasionally downright funny. That's not something you can say about many CEOs.

Of course, I don't have any money in the company. If I did, I might not be so sanguine about Sun's [insert adjective from above] former CEO. Wall Street has blamed McNealy for Sun's ongoing identity problem—or multiple-personality disorder. (Is it a hardware vendor, a multi-platform software company, or an integrated-technology-stack provider?) And more than one financial analyst has publicly called for him to step down. IT industry analyst Neil Ward-Dutton believes that the financial community has seen McNealy as ''damaged goods,'' and has penalized Sun's stock price accordingly. The post-announcement jump in Sun's stock price of 8-plus percent seems to support that conclusion.

''In recent months Sun has started to iron out its schizophrenia,'' Ward-Dutton observes. ''As the company has begun to broaden its hardware proposition to include Opteron, and it's OS proposition to include not only Solaris but Windows and Linux, etc, its continuing intention to offer an integrated software stack on multiple platforms is much less at odds with its [server] heritage.''

I've talked to a bunch of industry watchers over the past couple of days, and I think Ward-Dutton best summarized the two-edged impact of McNealy's personality on Sun:

''McNealy's drive was obviously a major factor in Sun's growth,'' he told me via email, ''but it was also an Achilles heel. On many occasions I saw McNealy spend most of his time bashing the competitor du jour (mostly Microsoft, but also IBM, Oracle and others) when he should have been spending his time talking about Sun.''

I've been covering Sun now for more than half of McNealy's reign, and the guy has swatted me more than once at press conferences for asking questions he didn't like. But his rude rejoinders notwithstanding, McNealy has been one of the most quotable execs on the IT beat, both for his wisecracks and his wisdom. I riffled through my old notebooks this morning and pulled out some of McNealy's most memorable lines of the past few years. At the risk of sounding like Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead , I thought I'd share a few of them here:

- McNealy's Law:

  • ''Eat lunch or be lunch.''

- McNealy's Microsoft Dictionary:

  • Windows OS: a ''hairball''
  • .NET: ''Dot Not,'' ''Not Yet,'' ''.Nut''
  • Outlook: ''Look Out''
  • Windows CE: ''Wince''
  • Microsoft Internet Information Server: ''The Corvair of Web Servers'' (unsafe at any speed)
  • Active Directory: 'Captive Directory'
  • Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates: ''Ballmer and Butthead''
  • Mr. Gates: ''Probably the most dangerous and powerful industrialist of our age.''
  • Microsoft and Intel: ''General and motors''
  • Microsoft: ''The Evil Empire''

McNealy's World:

  • ''Technology has the shelf life of a banana. When you buy software from us or anybody, my basic assumption is that it'll be obsolete within six months, or maybe even before you can install it.''
  • ''Open source is free like a puppy is free.''
  • Most servers are ''Frankensteins'' created from multi-vendor ''body parts''; most desktops are ''Dollys,'' a reference to the famous cloned sheep.
  • ''If I could embed a locator chip in my child right now, I know I would do that. Some people call that Big Brother; I call it being a father.''
  • Proprietary environments create ''barriers to exit... that prevent companies from moving forward, and inhibit the adoption of the latest security technologies.''
  • On the HP-Compaq merger: ''The visual I see is a slow-motion collision of two garbage trucks. And they're just about to meet bumpers.''
  • ''I've always argued that the computer industry is more screwed up than any industry in the world, except health care, which kills everybody eventually. So the bar is fairly low.''
  • ''You already have zero privacy. Get over it.''

I wonder if the fact that I tracked down all of these quotes on my hard drive with the Windows Desktop Search engine qualifies as irony.

I look forward now to covering Mr. McNealy's successor, though Mr. Schwartz has thus far failed to inspire the same spiny labels. I'm not sure yet what to do with ''pony-tailed.''


About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].