Wanted: Tech Visionaries

Opinion: Scott McNealy should use his new role at Sun to come up with a big idea that challenges the industry.

In his 22 years as CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy spanned at least four generations of technology that mirrored the evolution of the company. I suppose I would get some disagreement here, but Id mark those four generations as follows: big honking workstation, big honking servers, big network and, today, the virtual era. Now that he has moved into the more contemplative role of chairman while Jonathan Schwartz has taken on the CEO role, McNealy should spend some time coming up with a big statement of where the tech industry is headed.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about McNealys decision to step down from the top spot at Sun.

The industry could use some of those big directional statements. We are in a current era of what Id call incremental managers rather than visionaries. Incremental managers measure everything, compare themselves to any possible industry benchmark they can find, and champion success measured in gaining a half-point of market share or cutting a few heads out of the corporate pie in the name of efficiency. Bean counters have their role in a company, but they are not the ones who are going to inspire the troops to accomplish the next great goal.

Im sure Microsofts Windows Vista (when it appears) will be better than Windows XP and that the next version of Office will be more file-friendly than its predecessors. But, for a company headed by someone who is out to rid the world of dread diseases with his foundation money, Microsoft seems to come up short on the big "information at your fingertips"-type rallying cry.

And it is not just me saying that. Even Microsofts kept blogger Richard Scoble did a recent screed about why he believes he and his current Microsoft co-workers are deep in angst over the companys stature. One of his solutions is: "First, we need a big dream. A moon shot. The kind of challenge thatll keep our newly hired rock star minds engaged. Thatll give everyone in the company pride when its accomplished. The kind of goal thatll take four or maybe even eight years to accomplish."

The same angst that appears to be part of the Microsoft psyche also can be found in other companies tied to endless rounds of incremental product upgrades. Maybe the rise of managerial incrementalism also has touched off this minimalist approach to technology improvement. Even in the Web arena, where you could argue that the desire to hit a home run rather than make a career out of base hits has landed, the incremental approach appears everywhere. A read through Valleywag.com is good entertainment, but, at some point, you realize that nearly every company is trying to develop an online social network in the hopes of being sold to a big publisher.

So, unlike those who think McNealy should spend his chairman time deciding on golf or hockey for his evening activity, Id say he has his job cut out for him. Ive said before that Suns decision to focus in part on energy savings and the wisdom of a mix of environmentalism and technology makes great sense.

In the face of $4-a-gallon gas, a debate about whether oil production has passed its peak and the need to develop a new generation of transportation vehicles, the electronics and computer industry has been largely absent from the discussion. Creating the latest game box or honing manufacturing to undercut your competition by $10 per desktop is going to seem like a silly diversion in the unfolding economic climate.

A small engineering company in San Diego named Accelerate Composites has built a prototype lightweight car that the company claims can get 330 (!) miles per gallon. I have no idea if its claims are valid, but at least it is striving for that home run (or moon shot, in Scobles words) that breaks the chain of incremental thinking. Scott, instead of coming up with a new witty dig at Microsoft or IBM, come up with a big idea that challenges a company and an industry. That would be a good use of the chairmans office.

Editorial Director Eric Lundquist can be reached at eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.

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