Jesse Berst: McNealy's Gates envy could kill Sun

Sun's move to Linux is dumber than Ginger leaving the Spice Girls, says Jesse Berst.
Written by Jesse Berst, Contributor

Obsession and personal animosity make people do strange and stupid things.

Latest example: Scott McNealy is on the verge of moving his company off course -- and smack into a brick wall. Sun Microsystems is negotiating to acquire StarDivision. The German software company makes an office suite that can run on Linux. The idea would be to promote Linux (and possibly Sun's Solaris operating system) as a viable competitor to Microsoft on the desktop.

He's not interested because it makes business sense; he's interested because he's obsessed with Bill Gates and can't resist a chance to attack him.

Hang on, give me a second... I'm thinking... I'm trying to decide if that's the dumbest idea I've heard this year.

* Dumber than Republicans passing off Ken Starr as an independent counsel?

* Dumber than Bill Clinton lying about Monica?

* Dumber than Ginger leaving the Spice Girls?

Yes, despite stiff competition, McNealy's idea is the dumbest thing I've heard so far. Whether you look to the past or the future, it's a stupid idea. Look at it from the past perspective: Microsoft Office has an absolute lock on the suite market via long-term deals with corporations, distributors, OEMs and other partners. At least five other companies have damaged themselves badly by trying to beat Bill at his own game -- in his own backyard:

* Lotus with its SmartSuite Wordperfect with word processing

* Borland with spreadsheet and database tools

* Novell, which bought WordPerfect and Borland products

* Corel, which took WordPerfect and failed in the Windows space, tried to port it to Java and failed, most recently ported it to Linux

All of those companies tried to compete with Office. All of them failed. And all of them got in trouble because the CEO let jealousy of Bill Gates blind his business judgement.

If you look to the future, McNealy's latest move looks dumber still. Sure, desktop computers will sell in the millions for many years. But the future is in small devices. Information appliances. Handheld computers. Set-top boxes.

We don't need big fat office suites for those. Sun should focus on developing great apps for its lightweight Java OS to run on the small devices of the future. McNealy's desktop strategy is about as smart as General Motors buying a buggy whip manufacturer to compete with Henry Ford. Or an online publisher buying a printing press to increase circulation.

Why would McNealy contemplate anything so dumb? Simple. He's got the world's biggest case of Bill envy. Watch him give a speech; he can't resist any chance to make a dig at Microsoft. He does it every time; he cannot speak in public without a virulent, vituperative, venomous spew of anti-Microsoft rhetoric.

McNealy's a hypocrite too. He criticises Microsoft for the very tactics he uses at Sun. Nevertheless, he's done a brilliant job exploiting the Internet. He turned his company from a fading, old-guard workstation marketer to a leading edge Internet firm.

Too bad his obsessive envy of Bill Gates is leading him off the path.

Do you agree that McNealy is taking Sun off-course? Tell it to the Mailroom.

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