You Only Hurt the ONE You Love

by Ted Neward

In stunning fashion, Scott McNealy, Fearless Leader of Sun Microsystems, has put his company squarely in the middle of Yet Another Distraction, this time suggesting that Open Source software could be hurting Java in it's Good Fight against the Evil Empire.

The full interview will be varried in the August issue of Linux Magazine, but an excerpt was posted on If you haven't yet read this, do so before proceeding.

Hard Questions

After having read the excerpt (after seeing the link show up in a The Server Side newsletter), I had to really stop and think for a bit. Some really interesting questions began to emerge:

  • Is Scott McNealy completely off his rocker, or does he just not think when he speaks?

  • Is Scott McNealy in tune with what Open Source really means?

  • Does Scott McNealy really matter? And, if so,

  • Can Sun survive this man?

Taking these one at a time, then....

Is Scott McNealy completely off his rocker, or does he just not think when he speaks? If we stop and go back and reread the excerpt, a couple of interesting points emerge. First, in classic interview fashion, McNealy never actually answers one of the most interesting questions of the whole lot: is it important to have a certified open source J2EE implementation? He responds by saying "No, we've already got one. It's called Sun ONE app server." As Floyd Marinescu points out on The Server Side, since when has Sun ONE been open source? More importantly, though, is Scott's follow-up to this statement: "Do I think it's important? I don't know what that means."

What it means, Scott, is that Sun fully supports the Open Source initiative. That Java is fully in line with the goals and agenda of the Open Source movement, and that Java remains committed to the promise of free software. Now, please, don't get me wrong--personally, I'm not a strong advocate of Open Source software. Ultimately, while I love the fact that there's useful software out there that I can love and use (think Ant), I can't see how this survives in a commercially-driven world. The problem here, though, is that Sun has embraced the Open Source community and claimed that together, they will vanquish the Evil Empire, that Microsoft represents the Dark Side that can only be conquered by collective resurgence of the masses (of developers). Is this Sun suddenly showing their true stripes, that they're just as commercially-motivated as that Big Software Company in the Pacific Northwest?

Now, another version of this is one that's near and dear to my own heart: that Scott McNealy just opens his mouth and he has no idea what will come out. It's unplanned, uncensored, and entirely unpredictable.

Is Scott McNealy in tune with what Open Source really means? I truly don't believe he is. The brutal truth of the matter is, Sun is a commercial company out to survive in an increasingly dysfunctional economy. Let's call the spade a spade: every time somebody downloads and uses JBoss, it's a potential (note the word here, potential) Sun ONE sale out the window.

Again, though, note how McNealy's mind works: "I actually think we need more revenue in the J2EE space, so that we can do more advertising to get the message out, because right now the world is getting blitzed with Microsoft advertising, and promotion and branding and propaganda, and big lies, that that's why they're going, not because it's a better product." That is, revenue == market share, and that whole Linux thing is just a fluke. That advertising comes directly from revenue, and word-of-mouth advertising (such as what takes place with open source software) simply can't keep up.

(Personally, I'm so sick and tired of the Java zealots pooh-poohing the .NET space as "propaganda" and "big lies" that I can't even stand to be in the same room as somebody who starts down that tired old road.)

On another note, notice how McNealy still refuses to admit there's anything of worth in .NET; therefore Microsoft is winning purely on strength of its advertising. McNealy does point out that J2EE is getting fragmented in its advertising message, since it's coming from multiple vendors--a true statement, I think. But what's the solution? How could these vendors all work together to promote the J2EE message and still compete with one another? It's really too much to ask.

Does Scott McNealy really matter? This, ultimately, I think is the most important question to ask. Does Scott McNealy really make a difference in the forward motion of Java? This is one I just can't answer, to be honest. How much of Sun's movement on Java does he influence? Does he make decisions about technology? Are there projects he's artificially propping up, bleeding money from the company, in his quest to "Beat Microsoft"? Or has he shut innovative projects down for the same reason? Or is he just a mouthpiece that fires off random shots at Redmond with no real meaning behind them?

What's perhaps more important, though, is the follow-up to this: if Scott McNealy does, in fact, matter, Can Sun survive this man? It seems, almost, like McNealy is the best PR weapon Microsoft ever invented. Can Sun continue to survive if he keeps alienating Java users with these sorts of caustic comments?