The fall of McNealy: the end of an error

The fall of McNealy: the end of an error

Summary: Sun's bigget problem? It never understood the software world

TOPICS: Oracle

Sun’s present predicament – which has now culminated in Scott McNealy taking chairman’s bum rush – can be boiled down to one simple fact: this is a hardware company that has never understood the value of software.

Sure, Sun has tons of software: Solaris, I'm told Jonathan Schwartz knows a thing or two about software. Java, lots of other stuff as well. But in the over 20 years that I’ve watched Sun grow up – and watched McNealy’s never-flagging sense of humor eventually become the best thing you could say about one of Silicon Valley’s greatest companies – it’s been the software side of the company that has always been its weak point.

And I blame McNealy: Back in the day, McNealy’s unwavering maverick-dom helped him lose the Unix wars to Unix System V, the desktop wars to Windows, and the network switching war (one Sun hardly ever engaged in, despite its "the Network is the Computer" battle cry) to Cisco. More recently, and much more spectacularly, Sun lost the Java war to IBM, Oracle, and just about everyone else. And the open source war isn’t exactly going in Sun’s favor either.

Losing Java was particularly galling: Sun invented a weapon of true mass disruption, only to watch everyone else learn how to make hay while Sun’s own Java prospects were left in the dark. (Except, ironically, arch-rival Microsoft. It’s like a bad inside-the-valley joke: What do Scott McNealy and Bill Gates have in common? Neither knows how to make a dime on Java. It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.)

Meanwhile, Sun has continued to make great hardware, in an era in which hardware of all types is becoming a commodity. That’s a function of Moore’s Law, in part, as well as a function of how rapidly progress in software has made it easier to use less hardware to do much much more. Either way, it means that Sun has been making great inroads into the least strategic part of the technology stack, while the real money, and growth, has been somewhere else.

That somewhere else is in software and services, something Sun has just never understood, at least from a revenue standpoint. Too bad. For Sun, its shareholders, and, finally, for Scott as well.

I’m told Jonathan Schwartz knows a thing or two about software. Good. It’s never too late for a second act. But beware. This is a company that even lost the "best hardware platform to run SAP" war in the 1990s, after having been the undisputed leader for years. Software failure is in Sun’s DNA: it’s going to take a little genetic engineering to make a change for the better. Good luck, Jonathan……..

Topic: Oracle

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  • Sun and software

    When Sun wanted to switch all of their hardware to use SPARC chips (from the MC680x0 chips), they knew that they needed a way to assure their customers that the move wouldn't be painful. They worked hard with many 3rd part application owners, and developed a catalog of over 10000 SPARC applications. This one act anchored their long rise to dominance - as their customers did NOT leave when SPARC was introduced. Contrast that with DEC trying to move customers from BSD (Ultrix) on MIPS to OSF1 (sysV) on Alpha. DEC didn't do ANY homework, and they lost most of their customers (even though it was arguably a better solution).

    This was the last time that Sun emphasized software. Their great "hits" in software after that (WABI,Java), were home-grown projects that were not sanctioned by the corporation. It was just luck (and good hiring practices), that allowed Sun to make some software breakthroughs.

    Needless to say, McNealy was just following the "leader" (HP) - and THEY didn't do software and were successful, so why can't I? Of course, HP DID emphasize support services and consulting - something that Sun didn't.

    In the end, Sun did/does have the best hardware - but what good is hardware without software to add value (and revenue)?
    Roger Ramjet
  • Well, nobody's perfect!

  • and how many companies have you built up to worldwide powerhouses?


    Still waiting...

    Yes, that's right, none. Not one single solitary contribution to the world of computing. You're just mouthing off in some ZDNet blog: while Scott, on the other hand, co-created ( along with Bill, Larry, Steve, Mark, and numerous others ) the whole ball of wax that makes your insulting blog possible.

    I, for one, will be sorry to see McNealy go. He was out-spoken, intelligent, and often funny. The IT world will be a sadder place without him.

    • mouth some facts next time


      First of all, thanks for uncovering the shocking truth about my career. My goodness, it's great to no longer live the lie... I thought I made a contribution to computing back in 1989, but as we both seem to have forgotten what it was, it must have been as insignificant as you claim.

      To be serious for a minute (in case it's not obvious)I'm sorry you chose to be insulted, and felt the need to be insulting in the process. If you think my facts are wrong, challenge them with facts of your own. If you don't like what I say, add an intelligent counter argument and maybe someone will learn something.

      I agree that McNealy was all the things you say he was -- but that doesn't excuse him from making mistakes, massive ones, or from paying the consequences.
      • It's no fun to have your life's work mocked, is it?

        Hi Josh,

        You know how you felt when you read my post? That's how we felt when we read your unnecessarily cruel and heartless blog about Scott. It's no fun to have your life's work mocked, is it?

        You should try to remember this the next time you choose to take cheap shots at a fallen hero.

        To be fair, I did read your bio on "EAConsult". According to it: you went to college, were a programmer and an analyst (me too, and nearly everyone else who posts on ZDNet, by the way), and you worked at a whole bunch of places.

        I didn't see anything particularly meaningful there. What did you invent? What did you create? What new paradigm of computing did you bring to the world?

        Based on your bio, it looks like you've spent your whole life watching and pontificating on what others were doing. As far as I can tell, your just a consultant.

        Heck, I've been in the industry 4 years longer than you and my record is nearly as diverse. So what? That doesn't mean that I've earned the right to bash McNealy as you are doing.

        Have you ever worked with Scott? Have you ever worked with Sun? Have you ever even worked with their products?

        I have done all of the above, and I can tell you that you are bashing a truly great man.

        Did he make mistakes? Sure. Mistakes get made, by the winners as well as the losers... but that doesn't excuse some random consultant from bashing one of the great men who made the entire IT eco-structure possible. There would be no IT field for you to earn your living upon if it weren't for Scott (among others I have already listed).

        I had expected a more gracious tone from the press upon the bad news the McNealy was being driven out of his own company, but I guess that I should have known better than to expect simple human kindness from a parasitic consultant.

        • Outstanding!!!

          Brilliant rebuttal and well stated.
      • Still waiting

        Jon made a point in his initial post: what have you created? Based on your bio, it appears your history lies in rendering opinion, not creating the tangible from an idea.

        You're a lot like a sports writer. You've sat in the press box, providing commentary and opinion, just like every other writer of opinion out there. You aren't on the field, giving your blood, sweat, tears, body, mind and soul to what you believe in. You're not even willing to take a chance to found and run your own company that has a rich history that will forever be entrenched in the story that involves the "birth of the internet as we know it today."

        Were it not for this catchy headline and an email in my inbox that *sometimes* yields something more than the obvious (which is why I stay subscribed), I would have never encountered your blog.

        Bottom line, you've been a consultant, just like countless thousands, and now you're rendering opinion, just like countless thousands.

        For you, as a journalist, to take such a hardline stance reflects your own inabilities and why someone isn't writing about you, vs. the other way around.

        Honestly dude, if you're life was a book who would want to read it? Not me.

        Give me McNealy's book instead. And since you're into opinion, here's mine: how does it feel to be just another mouth on the internet. That's all you are. Just like millions of bloggers on myspace-- nothing more. How does it feel to know that you, in your life, will likely *NEVER* accomplish what McNealy has?

        How does it feel to know that descendants of yours will probably be speaking McNealy's name in classroom lessons, long after they stop speaking yours?

        That's what your "accomplishments" amount to.

        How does it feel? Now imagine McNealy reading your post and think about how you feel right now.

        And to the ZDNet editors: have some b*lls: let this post stay for everyone to read.
    • Still the loser

      No matter how great the loss, there's still a winner and a loser. Scott, great man or not still lost, and he lost to his own repetitive mistakes.

      Do you really think this author is trying to put Scott down in order to feel good about the fact he was never a CEO of a publicly traded company? You getting into a pissing match squaring off your credentials doesn't help your point.

      The points you do make, seem to only make the sad story even more sad. These are:

      - Scott, according to you as being a "great man" makes him even a "greater loser". I haven't met him, but I found his arrogance about Java and anti-microsoft rhetoric over the years really pathetic, since he had such an opportunity to put those feelings and resources to use, but failed, and big, and again and again.

      - By the author illustrating an interesting string of recurring business blunders made by Sun, you seem to take it personally. What is Scott to you, a brother? I found it interestingly true. Have the other "Winners" (eg Bill) had any more success with, say, Java? No, but Scott made a massive bet without hedging the gamble, and it cost him dearly, yet he did nothing to reshape his company.

      Sounds like you should go give Scott a hug and get out of the kitchen.
      • So then tell us

        How many times would you have to get screwed over by Microsoft?
        They who began to yet again disavow their own written contractual agreement with SUN and changed the Java Code within windows?
        How would you react to watching your life's work get flushed down the drain? How would it feel to have been a partner with a firm like Microsoft and then have them screw you over behind your back. Then when you take them to court [ and Win ] Microsoft "having stolen enough of Scott's work, now go on about creating their own version of Java and dump you. How would it feel? How fast could you "Get over it" Scott didn't miss the Java Boat, as someone else said, he was screwed out of it by Microsoft and the courts agreed.
        So don't give us the crap about how we should all "Get over it" and carry on. Put yourself in his shoes and then ask yourself, carry on to what?
        If it wasn't for Scott Mcnealy then Net or Microsoft would not be as it is today.
        For years he was the backbone behind Microsoft. I wish to God I was close enough, I would definitely require that he NOT GO. Instead , stay,fight, and damned well don't give up until you've won. but then I don't have the cowards for shareholders that SUN has, not do I have it's gutless board.
        Thank God. Come to think of it, maybe he's '' better off without them.
        After all, he'll always be Scott Mcnealy, but what about SUN, what will they be without him? Not Much.
        Aaron A Baker
    • curious logic

      So, by your logic...

      - since you've never run a country you are in no position to make observations on President Bush's performance?

      - since you've never built a restaurant franchise you are in no position to express concern about how your local burger joint incorrectly said "no nuts in the salad" when there in fact were huge almond slices?

      - since you've never built a car company, you are in no position to criticize ABC Auto company for whatever it is they may have done wrong?

      By your logic, no one can critique anyone's actions or performance unless they've matched that person's resume. In whichc case, shareholders of a company can't evaluate management because, chances are, the average shareholder hasn't run a company.

      Sheeesh, I guess this is the price to pay for freedom of speech and affordable computers/internet access.

      Oh, and by the way, if you've never done anything as a journalist, what position are you in to comment on the opinions of a journalist who is at least published?
      • re: Curious Logic

        Thanks mom for finally coming to my defense....

        Seriously, I would add Monday morning quarterbacking and voting for president as forbidden activities under that same "curious logic." Sometimes the only way to see through a problem is to be on the outside looking in.

        I would also add in my own defense that watching Sun is not something I do casually, and that McNealy's fall was predictable. Read the last paragraph in this column I published on April 14, 2004, two years to the week that McNealy resigned:
  • Missing the Cut

    Gentleman one truth even to CEOs.

    Missing revenues, profit and cost target for few years in a row = fire or politely as in this case, stepped Down.

    Now comes Mr. Schwartz, my recommendation: Redirect your unavoidable desire to rant on HP, IBM and alikes. Such a waste of time, HP and IBM are not the ones loosing money.
  • Never ceases to amaze me

    You people are unbelievable. While he was at the top, everybody loved him and you people doted on him. He was a genius, a voyeur, a clairvoyant and just about every other Godlike name you could think of.
    NOW, now that he's on his way out, starts the other side, or more to the point the truth about how one sided you people can be. He made mistakes, no question, could you have done better? He was a man in a turmoil and his fight with Microsoft, " who did a great job of screwing SUN over" didn't help matters.
    The only thing that helped Microsoft was the fact that Gates had more lawyers and a lot more time to waste.
    So now all of a sudden, his smile isn't worth a thing, his humor no longer counts, God, he's barely human now in accordance with your descriptions. And you people call yourselves middle of the road, non biased Reporters?.
    Maybe you should go back to school or at the very least, hang around with some REAL Reporters, if for no other reason that to learn what the term "Non Biased" really means.
    In short,cut the crap, we're not buying.
    Report Right or call is what it really is, "Yellow Journalism and garbage gossip. National Enquirer would be proud of you.
    There's a thought.
    Aaron A Baker
    • ummm...

      How does being a voyeur amount to being godlike?

      ....just my $.02

      other than that... well said!
      • Apologies, My Mistake

        I was so angry at the calloused disregard shown this great man that I said "Voyeur,.
        What I meat to say Visionary, a brilliant man who can look into the future and see a great many possibilities.
        This too was one of Scott's abilities.
        So please forgive the error and Scott if I've offended, "You never know" ,I do apologize.
        In my opinion, this is a mistake that SUN will come to regret.
        Aaron A Baker
  • Now, one less med patient to talk back

    where's Ellison, . . . come here, you've an expanded role to play, hyper erratic mouth piece.
  • The fall of Greenbaum

    Someday, I would like to read Scott McNeally write a similar obit piece for Greenbaum. That would be appropriate. JG has done nothing on the scale of what Scott has accomplished, and I liken him to a punk with a spray paint can......
    • still waiting for some facts

      Anyone care to actually address the issue in my blog -- that Sun missed the boat on software, and that as skipper it was McNealy's opportunity to lose?

      Come on guys, give it a try! Here's a hint: find the successful, profitable software product that Sun brought to market. Or, show me how Sun is going to thrive if it continues on the path that McNealy has set it on.

      Either argument would be a lot more useful than "punk with a spray paint can" -- which, by the way, is a bit of a compliment. Thanks.
    • Empathetic Underdog

      Boy, I bet it would be fun to watch a football game with you. Mistakes gallore. I suppose the referees shouldn't be there either, since they aren't professional players themselves, and thusly are disqualified from pointing out a foul.

      With your thinking, Martha Stewert would be more qualified to critique Scott's business mistakes. Unlick Josh, she's built a billion dollar company and is still running it. Oh, wait, she's a convicted fellon. Nevermind, Drats.
  • Error or not? Sun who what where?

    I guess it's a big question for the future.
    Maybe Sun does need new ideas and new directions.
    I don't know how they made money like that because I never bought anything from Sun.
    I guess they are the corporate world's IT insider knowledge buzz word or something like that.
    I never had any need for Sun products. I use linux if I want to fool around with Unix stuff.

    Yes they sure missed the Java boat.
    But eveyone makes mistakes and it is probably better for McNealy to take a backseat now.