Software Politics

Watching the American presidential campaigns has been an interesting experience. I think I watched in years past, but never as much as I did this year. The campaign intrigues me and perhaps the most intriguing is the whole “flip-flopping” accusation against John Kerry (I won't even dignify the swift boat controversy by including that). Now blogs are a great way to bring up political opinions and I am full of them, but I won't bore you with mine at this point. My point today is more about the nature of the debate itself. All week long, we watched Kerry berated for his inconsistent voting record where he would often change his mind on certain issues. Some of the evidence against him is certainly damning and makes you think twice. However, I find living a life so public and scrutinized makes for an unenviable position. People are out to exploit Kerry's position and willing take some quotes out of context for the sake of making him look bad. The Democrats have done the same thing with George W. Bush and it gets frustrating after a while. Who's more inconsistent? It kinda makes me think of our good friends at Sun Microsystems.


Before I go down this path, let me say for the record that Microsoft is just as guilty of inconsistent statements as the rest of the world—in fact, that is part of the point here. Things changes and circumstances change that may require re-assessment. However, I think Microsoft gets called to the carpet for it more than anyone. When you try to do what’s best for the customer, you’re gonna end up looking inconsistent. Case in point…

I stumbled upon Jonathan Schwarz's blog last week and it's a great. For those of you who don't know, Schwarz has become the face of the future of Sun Microsystems. He has shot up the ranks and seems to get more exposure than Scott McNealy. It's clear that he is being groomed and he's clearly a worthy successor. He isn't quite the Microsoft-basher that McNealy was, so I certainly appreciate that part of him. But beyond that, he is extremely open (he faithfully blogs, which should give you an idea) and seems intent on listening to the customer—something MS execs are also starting to learn. Sun's future is a lot brighter because of this guy. But I found his take on Linux fascinating. More specifically, his take on IBM has been extremely interesting. In an open letter to IBM several months back, he wrote:

Finally, although we've always been disappointed that you've refused to resell Linux, and the market's been disappointed at your unwillingness to indemnify your customers for its use - as Sun's been willing to do since day 1 - what's most disappointing is there appears to be no real commitment to Linux.


At this point, Sun was selling “Sun Linux” and asking IBM to use it on the desktop. OK, that makes sense. Sun is embracing Linux and calls on IBM to do the same. That was last January. But last month, in his blog, Schwarz says this:

IBM brags about its "thousands of programmers working on linux." But ISV's can't build their business on a social movement - they have to pick a base software distribution and web service stack. And with most enterprises having picked Red Hat on IBM's recommendation, IBM now clumsily realizes it's invited the fox into the hen house... Red Hat's dominance leaves IBM almost entirely dependent upon SuSe/Novell. Whoever owns Novell controls the OS on which IBM's future depends.


Wait, I thought IBM was supposed to make a commitment to Linux. Now, you are saying that people can’t build a business on a social movement. OK, that’s fair. Should they have branded their own as Sun did? Well, there’s another passage in the blog mocking the “blizzard of distros” for Linux. Didn't Sun's Linux add to that problem? “IBM Linux” wouldn’t have helped things. So, other than providing thousands of developers for Linux, what did you mean by commitment? Buying Sun desktops? If IBM had taken Schwarz up on the offer, wouldn’t they be subject to a different fox in the henhouse? So, which is it? Make a commitment to Linux or stay away for fear of dependence? Build your own Linux or avoid creating another version of Linux that further forks the code?

So, is Schwarz trying to confuse IBM? Well, maybe, but I think there’s something different at hand. Here’s a guy who determined a strategy as of January (“we love Linux”), saw the game change (“people don’t think much of Sun Linux”), called an audible (for those of you who aren’t American Football fans, that’s when you change a play just before it begins), and shifted back into Solaris-oriented strategy. But this isn’t the only wavering that occurs. Sometimes, the messages are conflicting without the introduction of new news. I guess I am confused about what customers of Sun must feel.

· SCHWARZ'S POINT: “So if you're running Red Hat, and feeling frustrated by their support, exorbitant pricing, or weak security…” – from the blog

· SCHWARZ'S INCONSISTENCY: “We'll run Red Hat faster than anyone out there.” – also from the same blog entry

· SANDY'S CONFUSION: Uhh, if Red Hat’s offering is so poor, why would you partner with them? I am, however, entertained by him saying Red Hat has “weak security”.

· SCHWARZ'S POINT: “Come to Sun…write to Java, then write to Solaris. Clear as a bell." – quote of a customer in the blog

· SCHWARZ'S INCONSISTENCY: “Write once, run anywhere” – The Java promise and part of the source for litigation against Microsoft

· SANDY'S CONFUSION: “Write to Solaris”? What happened to platform independence and the vendor lock-in that you avoid by staying away from Microsoft? The minute you write to Solaris, how do you switch to WebSphere on Red Hat? You’re just as locked-in as if you went to Windows 2003.

Actually, truth be told, I am not that confused about what he's saying. I think what it comes down to is the art of business (and politics as well) is being anything the public wants you to be. We’re open, but not too open. We’re the best platform around, but you can leave us at any time. What this leads to is a lot of looking inconsistent in trying to sell your message (ahh, to be in Marketing). I look forward to more blogs and interesting twists and turns of Sun. I don’t write this as an attack on Sun as much as a reminder that this is a fact of life and for you to understand that Microsoft changes its position as customer data warrants it and we are not alone in the industry. I empathize. The more open we are in how we try to do business, the more scrutiny people will have on our words. Microsoft is not duplicitous as some suggest--we merely understand trends and react on them to the best of our abilities. I am reminded of the Bill Gates quote “Why would anyone ever need more that 640K RAM” that looks very myopic, but was actually taken a bit out of context in most of the places I’ve seen it. Regardless of the context, I am sure Mr. Gates no longer believes this :). But at the time, it probably made sense. The best way to combat this is to explain the inconsistencies and to be clear in showing how the game has changed and why we changed. That's advice I have for Microsoft, Sun, IBM, George W. Bush, John Kerry, and anyone else who goes "on the record"…

And, back to politics, in the case of John Kerry, yes he was for the war and yes, he was against the war. As the he gets quoted often when he is ridculed: "I was for the war before I was against it." Hey John, that just doesn't sound good and people will call you on it--specifically the Republican party. Explain yourself if there is a good reason. If not, there's trouble ahead. But if it makes Mr. Kerry feel better, here’s one final message to think about…

"If you're going to go in and try to topple Saddam Hussein, you have to go to Baghdad. Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it. It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Ba'athists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"

                 -Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney

                                                                    "The Gulf War: A First Assessment",

                                                                   Soref Symposium

                                                                   April 29, 1991

Like I said, it’s hard to be consistent…


{Smashing Pumpkins - Siamese Dream}