Sun’s McNealy Defines “Proprietary” … Sort Of

Dean Takahashi has an entertaining set-to with Sun’s Scott McNealy in Sunday’s San Jose Mercury-News. There is bickering throughout, but the best snippet is this telling exchange:

Q There is a perception that Sun is trying to lock in customers with proprietary technology.

A For 22 years, I’ve said name a technical specification at Sun that is not open, published or adopted by some or all of the computer industry. You can’t. To call Sun proprietary is as big a lie as you could put in your newspaper. If I were to say IBM is bankrupt and you were to publish that, that would be the same as saying Sun is proprietary.

Q Where can I buy Solaris besides Sun?

A Is a Ford proprietary to a Chevy? I can switch in a heartbeat. It’s all about lock-in. If Ford puts the brake pedal to the right of the accelerator, and everybody else puts it on the left, you’re locked in. When you’re in a panic, you’re not going to look down to see where the pedal is. We’ve proven we are open. Customers can move away from us. I’m happy they can.

That is, of course, an amusing but ultimately meaningless definition of “proprietary” from Scott. If the critical element that differentiates proprietary and non-proprietary technologies is whether customers can “move away”, then nothing, including Microsoft’s Windows, is proprietary.

What McNealy glosses is the customer-centric aspect of proprietary that has to do with interoperability and the resulting cost to change platforms — and it can be darn high with Solaris, just as it is with any other proprietary operating system.


  1. Does anyone really care what McNealy says anymore? Sun has become a bit-player in its own market – unix. Red Hat is the new Microsoft foil, not Sun. Its maddening to watch Sun do the SGI thing, shrinking, fighting change, shrinking, fighting change…the fact is corporations truly hate change regardless of the BS that comes out of business writers. Sun would love to turn the clock back to 1996 but alas those days are gone.