Enterprise Unix Roundup: Sunset for McNealy

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Apr 28, 2006

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Amy Newman
Brian Proffitt
As Scott McNealy rides out into the sunset, we ponder what lies ahead for Sun on Jonathan Schwartz' watch. Integration was the word on the street at both the Linux Desktop Summit and LinuxWorld Toronto.

Hardly a ho-hum week. We determined this late Monday afternoon when we first heard that Sun Microsystems' Chairman and CEO McNealy would hand over the CEO reins to none other than President and COO Jonathan Schwartz.

Rumors, often more salacious, along these lines have been swirling for months, so we were more surprised by the timing than the substance. The substance, on review, seems akin to a semantic change.

Sure, the 40-something, charismatic, ponytail-wearing Schwartz is perceived as an image change from the more-staid and mature co-founder, but do his intentions and vision represent a radical shift?

Our first reaction is, no. After all, Schwartz has been next to the corner office for two years now. He has been a voice of Sun for at least as long. The past few media days we've attended seemed to feature Schwartz as the star of the show.

More important, though, is the fact that McNealy isn't really going anywhere. He's staying on as chairman. Just like Bill Gates did when Steve Ballmer took his place at the helm. And, as is the case with Bill Gates and Microsoft, we anticipate McNealy remaining synonymous with Sun.

On the other hand, Schwartz has seen the company through some substantial changes in the past few years: The open sourcing and release of Solaris 10, a shift from being a largely proprietary vendor to one that hawks industry-standard commodity hardware, and the shepherding of UltraSPARC T1 to its launch.

He also originates from the dot-com boom culture, unlike McNealy who came of age in the PC-era boom of the 1980s, along with Bill Gates and Larry Ellison. The computing environment McNealy was instrumental in crafting is not the computing environment of today, and although it would be too simple to attribute the past five years of Sun's woes to that, we've no doubt it plays a role.

Game-changer or not, Schwartz has a tough road ahead to turn the company around. For one thing, he will have to counteract Sun's reputation for playing flavor of the month, when it comes to strategy. It needs to have a focus. This focus will need to be more than just opening code and releasing faster, cooler boxes. It means not being afraid to shift the company's mission, if need be. After all, the network wasn't always the computer.

More importantly, though, for Sun to be viewed as a viable growing concern, Schwartz needs to turn around its continuing losses. Sales for last quarter were up. Losses, however, continue. If Sun has any hope of returning to the black, it must change itself accordingly and deliver what customers want before even they realize they want it.

Sun's fiscal third-quarter results, reported along with the personnel change after Monday's close, revealed a 21 percent increase in sales to $3.18 billion, an amount below the $3.21 billion estimated. The company's loss of $217 million, or 6 cents a share, was in line with forecasts.

Investors appear keen on the switch, and Sun's stock price went on the ascent. Analysts appear to be mixed on it. We're inclined to withhold judgment and give Schwartz a honeymoon period. For a few weeks, anyway.

We're also disinclined to start issuing elegies for McNealy. His impact will continue to be felt throughout the company, even if he's absent from the day-to-day management. Which, let's face it, he's been moving away from for some time.

In Other News

» While the doings at Sun shake and rattle the Unix world, other events are stirring up little wakes of controversy on their own. Specifically, the announcement from Linspire CEO Kevin Carmony at the Desktop Linux Summit. Linspire will be available in a free version this August (oh so conveniently timed for the San Francisco LinuxWorld), to be named Freespire.

Now, much of what makes Linspire unique among Linux distros is its focus on the desktop and the company's willingness to incorporate fully licensed versions of proprietary software and drivers. These drivers enable end users to perform operations other distributions might not allow (e.g., viewing a movie on DVD media legally in the United States).

This approach has tended to polarize some members of the Linux community away from Linspire, since it does not maintain a "pure" open source philosophy. As a result, Freespire will be released in two flavors: a completely open source only version, which will not have any proprietary software packages, and a version that contains the legally licensed versions of proprietary software.

Despite the existence of a completely open version of Freespire, this hasn't stopped detractors from coming out blazing against the company, citing profit motive for shoving proprietary software down users' throats. We've historically been big fans of open source, but let's not kid ourselves here: Companies like IBM, Red Hat, Novell, and Mandriva are all about profit motive at the end of the day. If this is Linspire's schtick, we say let the market decide.

» Things were fairly quiet at LinuxWorld Toronto, where our neighbors to the north were treated to another fine show. Sadly, we couldn't get up to Canada this year, but we have received reports that the show was pretty good. Not a huge amount of news came out of the show, save the launch announcement for Xandros Server.

Xandros, which uses the Linux distribution technology formerly developed by Corel, has been a player in the Linux desktop space (much like Linspire) for all of its existence. This move into the server space at first looked like yet another attempt to breach the enterprise fortress, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that is not the case at all.

Last month, we spoke to CEO Andreas Typaldos, who revealed that the real target of this new server product is actually small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and perhaps departments within enterprises. Typaldos laid it out: If the central big functions of an enterprise are held by mainframe or enterprise Linux operating systems and the edges of the company's IT structure, the desktops, are held by Windows, then his product best fits in-between, at the department level. Here, Xandro Servers' integration capabilities enable it to manage Windows machines easily and be managed by Red Hat or SUSE servers.

For the SMB arena, Xandros Server is a good fit, since it can provide Windows management functionality and be a solid, stable core server for most SMBs.

» Integration is also one of the touch points for the announcement from the Free Standards Group this week: The Linux Standard Base 3.1 is out and about. The LSB, for those who need a cheat sheet, is the standard that ideally all Linux distributions will follow. If adhered to, any application developed for a Linux distro will be able to run on any other LSB-compliant distribution.

Or so the theory goes.

We say this with no cynicism regarding the FSG or its LSB standard; it's just there are some "LSB-complaint" distributions out there that have an ... interesting ... interpretation of compliance.

Regardless, we think this iteration of the LSB is going to be an important one: Its the first LSB that specifically addresses the desktop. Not in terms of look and feel, but rather in terms of APIs and ABIs, according to Jim Zemlin, Executive Director of the FSG. We spoke to Zemlin and FSG-newcomer and CTO Ian Murdock about the new release last week. They painted a pretty good picture of how important this particular LSB is.

Essentially, this standard will mean LSB 3.1-complaint versions of Linux must have the same structure at the library level (whether GTK or Qt), regardless of which desktop environment that distribution happens to focus on. So if a developer writes a KDE app for a GNOME-centric distro like Ubuntu, his application will run just as well as it would on a KDE-centric distribution, such as Kubuntu.

This is not, they emphasized, a move toward desktop unification. We've heard rumblings of some FSG-independent moves in both the GNOME and KDE developer communities to reach across the digital aisle and pull some features together; maybe this new standard will lend a hand in that regard.

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