The rhetoric isn't resonating

Tech Update editor David Berlind found the rhetoric from Steve Ballmer and Scott McNealy not riveting enough at the recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2001. Instead, HP CEO Carly Fiorina takes the cake with her all-business determination.

In one of my dispatches filed from Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2001, I commented on how polished, direct, and all-business HP CEO Carly Fiorina was as she fielded questions during a keynote. I had noted that she seemed a bit too formal. Fiorina could not be cajoled, and instead routinely took each question and brought it back to the HP master strategy and how that strategy would benefit the company's customers and stockholders. It seemed as though she was presenting at one of HP's quarterly earnings calls in New York, rather than to an audience of business and IT execs dressed in golf attire in Florida.

The following day, when the always animated Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed up looking relaxed and casual, I thought about how Fiorina could have loosened up some. The audience was clearly more relaxed with Ballmer on stage. One day later, Sun CEO Scott McNealy was equally disarming with his casual style and dry sense of humor.

Indeed, both men played up the jokes. Little did I suspect that Fiorina might have the last laugh.

What was there to joke about? Well, Ballmer and McNealy devoted ample time to ripping each other's companies to pieces. Ballmer hammered away at Sun for trying to win in the courts instead of on the playing field. Characterizing Sun as a follower instead of a leader, Ballmer joked that if Microsoft came out with something called a "hole," Sun would tell you not to buy any holes until it came out two weeks later with a "j-hole."

Appearing to refer to Linux, StarOffice, or both (but not naming names), Ballmer said,"[Our] competitors have very attractive price points: zero. Not very attractive products, but very attractive price points." Ballmer also dismissed the Liberty Alliance, a consortium of vendors (including Sun) and businesses that appears to be organizing an authentication alternative to Microsoft's Passport. The alliance, Ballmer said, "has zero probability of mattering." When asked why Microsoft didn't join the Liberty Alliance, Ballmer claimed that Microsoft was never invited.

The last word is clearly a good thing to have at Symposium, and Scott McNealy got the last word one day later. While Sun was Ballmer's primary target, no one was safe once McNealy got warmed up. It was a smear campaign that many politicians would envy.

McNealy was well prepared to return fire, sometimes intentionally stammering as though he couldn't clearly enunciate words from the Microsoft-Intel lexicon. First he called HP/Compaq a grocery store for Wintel that would compete with Dell and IBM Global Services. (It's an assessment I don't disagree with.) McNealy called HP/Compaq wimps for throwing in the towel with RISC, and characterized the company as a sinking ship. He stammered across "Itanic" before managing to pronounce "Itanium."

After raking HP, Compaq, and Intel over the coals, he turned his attention to IBM and Microsoft in an attempt to explain the "I" in CIO. Musing whether the "I" stood for integration or information, he called IBM's technology "unintegratable" and Microsoft's technology a fully integrated "hairball" that could not be deconstructed in a way that gives technology decision makers any options besides Microsoft options.

McNealy spent considerable time talking about the absurdity of how Microsoft's Passport and Hailstorm initiatives will collect information that already belongs to people in the audience, and then sell it back to them. (That's a characterization I'm not so sure about.) McNealy refuted Ballmer's claim that Microsoft wasn't invited to join the Liberty Alliance, insisting that alliance member and United Airlines CIO Eric Dean did invite Microsoft. Before closing, he stuttered again, feigning a struggle over ".NOT" before finally saying ".NET."

By the time I had a chance to absorb both performances, and engage both men in a bit of post-keynote Q&A, it became clear to me that each CEO (perhaps McNealy more than Ballmer) would stop at nothing to disparage the other. To the savvy technologist, of whom there were many in the audience, it was obvious that both performers were willing to distort the truth, especially if the distortion drew a laugh at the competition's expense.

For example, McNealy's notion that Microsoft or IBM technologies leave customers with few options is patently false. Plenty of companies run nothing but operating systems from either vendor, with the rest of the application stack (app server, Web server, database, etc.) dominated by third-party offerings.

When it comes to Internet authentication, single sign-in, and network presence, the Liberty Alliance has as much chance of mattering as does Microsoft's Passport. As I point out in another column, anything short of a standard is intolerable; in the long run, current market penetration (the basis of Ballmer's victory claim) won't be nearly as important as trust.

Let's put aside the question of whether either company is trustworthy. In fact, neither company has been around long enough to compete with the financial institutions to which consumers have traditionally entrusted their personal information. Several of these financial institutions are members of the Liberty Alliance, but the 800-pound gorillas whom I expect will put their feet down are the ones that cut across the entire financial industry, the ones that many businesses and consumers are already doing business with: the credit card companies. The day after I wrote the article on trust I was contacted by Visa to talk about an initiative called VbyV. Stay tuned.

The reason the Liberty Alliance matters now is because other technology and business leaders, some of them Microsoft customers, aren't going to roll over and let Microsoft own the landscape. If the Liberty Alliance didn't matter, why would Microsoft suddenly have announced support for the authentication alternative Kerberos? Of course it matters.

Having been mildly entertained by the dueling CEOs, I decided to work the Symposium crowd a bit to gauge the reactions of IT managers and business managers. My methodology was rather unscientific. Shortly after McNealy finished, I intercepted some attendees as they wandered around the event. Later that day, I conducted a mini-focus group with a batch of hungry attendees in the lunch tent. Hungry people can be grouchy. The report card wasn't good.

Virtually everyone I spoke with thought that Ballmer and McNealy could learn a thing or two from the straight-laced Fiorina. Some of the attendees I interviewed were upset with Ballmer and McNealy for wasting their time. Members of my informal focus group said they had expected Ballmer and McNealy (knowing what they know about technology and their companies' roadmaps) to explain how technology decision makers should be thinking about their strategies, aligning their priorities, and preparing for the next waves of innovation. "At least Carly kept returning to [HP's] message," said one attendee. "McNealy spent too much time dissing Microsoft and occasionally referred to his big friggin' WebTone switch idea, but didn't say why I should care. I didn't learn anything. It was a waste of my time."

Katz Media Group CIO David Prager said, "It's hard to separate [McNealy's] overflowing personality from reality. I never liked negative campaigns." Another attendee complained that his company spent over $5,000 to attend the conference, and the last thing he wanted to hear from Ballmer and McNealy was a bunch of propaganda.

To be fair, I can't saddle Ballmer and McNealy with all the blame. While both were well prepared with innuendo, one attendee I spoke to said, "Gartner's moderators put them in the position of using it." But, regardless of what it took to unlock the rhetoric, discriminating technologists don't appreciate it. It's an insult to their intelligence and it hurts the credibility of both CEOs and their companies. Score one for Fiorina.

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