Goodbye, Mr. McNealy

Opinion: Never forget that while he was unable to right Sun in recent years, McNealy wasn't just an industry giant, he changed the IT world forever.

In 1982, Scott McNealy founded Sun Microsystems with three graduate student friends—Andy Bechtolsheim, Bill Joy and Vinod Khosla from Stanford University.

I doubt they knew they were making history.

Suns first workstation was in many ways the worlds first workstation. It, the Motorola 68000-powered Sun-1, had a network protocol, TCP/IP; a slogan, "the network is the computer"; and an operating system, briefly a port of Version 7 Unix, to be followed quickly by the open-source 4.1BSD Unix. This soon became known as SunOS.

The computing world would never be the same.

With that one system, which would launch a billion-dollar-plus enterprise, the foundation network protocol of the Internet was laid. Other companies would also make TCP/IP popular. Sun made it the heart of the Internet.

Workstations, while never as popular as PCs, would for decades be the defining platform of scientists, engineers and high-end design. When I started working on the Internet in the 80s, we didnt use PCs. We, all of us, used workstations, and most of them were made by Sun.

/zimages/6/28571.gifScot Petersen calls McNealy ITs tragicomic figure. Click here to read why.

And, while Sun has had its ups and downs with open source, by using BSD Unix it set in motion a culture of bright, inquisitive developers who would eventually turn the software world upside down with open source.

Under McNealy, Sun grew to be a computer hardware giant. Then, when PCs began to erode Suns market share, he presided over the transformation of Sun from the workstation company of choice into being the high-end server power.

With the rise of the dot-coms, Sun rose to its zenith.

Always colorful—to put it mildly—McNealy would war with his fellow IT super-CEOs such as Microsofts Bill Gates. He was never able to unseat Gates as the top dog of technology, but no one gave it a better, or more spectacular, try.

Unfortunately, while the fall of the dot-coms didnt destroy Sun, it did almost bring the company to its knees.

McNealy, still energetic, still striving for the top, now ruled over a company that, in its frantic efforts to capture its glory days, kept trying one approach after another: network computers, Linux-powered appliances and Java.

Some of them—such as the wasted $2 billion purchase of Linux-powered Cobalt Networks in 2000—only hurt the company. Others, such as the very popular Java programming language, have been technological success stories, but have done relatively little to help Suns bottom line.

McNealy was correct when he said, "The time is right. Our product line is fixed … our customers are probably happier with us than they have been in years."

But it was the stockholders, who watched Suns losses mount to more than $4 billion between 2002 and 2005, who were doubtlessly the happiest.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about McNealy stepping down.

That McNealy would announce that he was leaving Sun on the tail end of a quarter that saw losses of $217 million, or 6 cents a share, compared with a loss of $28 million, or 1 cent a share, in the year-ago quarter, was only too appropriate. It was not the technology that had failed McNealy; it was a technology market that he no longer mastered.

The driving man who had led Sun to the heights in the 80s and 90s was not the man who could lead Sun back to the top in the 00s.

I will miss McNealy. Some may say he wont really go. That hell still pull Suns strings as the chairman of the board. I dont see that. I see him riding off into the sunset. His day, Im sorry to say, has passed.

But let us not forget, let us never forget, that without Scott McNealy we would have neither the Internet nor the open source that powers so much of it.

Hyperbole? I dont think so.

I was there in the early days. When the Internet moved from college computer rooms into every home, when open source moved from being an academic curiosity to being a driving engine of software, and as I think of those days, I see Sun workstations and servers—pizza boxes we called them—running SunOS and Solaris, knitting the Net together. I see programmers tinkering with Unix on SPARCstations and wondering what they could do if only they had the source code. I see, in short, our modern computing world as an infant.

Thank you, Mr. McNealy, thank you.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols is Ziff Davis Internets Linux and open source editor.

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