McNealy outs Big Blue bad guys over breakfast

A hailstorm, according to Sun Microsystems' CEO and chief comedian Scott McNealy is something to be avoided if you live in the US...

A hailstorm, according to Sun Microsystems' CEO and chief comedian Scott McNealy is something to be avoided if you live in the US Mid-West.

The picture of falling lumps of ice, creating havoc, is, in McNealy's mind, an entirely appropriate metaphor for Microsoft's latest strategy announcement. And a few minutes with a whiteboard conjured up a sketch of the new world order according to Bill Gates.

You would expect McNealy to say this. After all, his company has its own view of the future of Web services, and breakfast with McNealy made it quite clear to me that Sun was really the good guy in the white hat and IBM and Microsoft were two spaghetti-western villains masquerading in expensive suits.

Traditionally, Sun has kept most of its artillery aimed at its great rival Microsoft, but times are changing, and the strength of IBM's Global Services business, together with the growing popularity of Linux and Websphere, does seem to be making Sun a little twitchy over Big Blue's appetite for growth.

IBM, if I understand McNealy's argument, has an impressive catalogue of expensive products. The framework looks much like the components of the child's toy that involves different shaped holes and objects.

Big Blue, we are told, rarely moves quickly where technology is involved. It first sells the customer the kit - "dig this groovy mainframe, sorry, Webserver" - and then darkens the skies with global services "consultants" whose alleged task is to vacuum money from the customer's wallet, while banging square objects from recently acquired companies into round holes in customers' e-business strategies.

IBM may view this assessment as a little unkind, but McNealy's satirical comments illustrate only too well how fierce the beauty contest to own the future of enterprise IT strategy has become between IBM, Microsoft, Sun and Oracle.

To be perfectly honest, while I grasped McNealy's acerbic objections to both IBM and Microsoft's visions of a "Weblified" world, I had a struggle understanding why Sun's own solution, also presented in a "back of a napkin" sketch, was really superior and more refined than anything its rivals may have to offer.

Of course, there are important factors involving cost, simplicity and the danger of being locked-in to a single solution, supplier or operating environment. But there is a kind of Star Wars morality creeping into the argument that threatens to bury intelligent technical debate.

IBM can sell you a reconditioned Death Star for a price and Sun sees itself very much in the heroic Jedi role in a constant struggle against a dark commercial force, whose galactic home happens to lie just outside Seattle.

With this in mind, one can understand the dilemma of the IT director. The question of how one develops a sound, secure and reliable e-business strategy has too many contradictory and expensive answers, and far too many promises, to make any but the most confirmed optimist comfortable with the strategies on offer.

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group

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