Sun Microsystems founders celebrate legacy

At a recent Sun reunion, founders Scott McNealy and Bill Joy weigh in on machine learning, mobile, Facebook, and politics in tech

More than 1,000 former employees of Sun Microsystems gathered near San Francisco International Airport recently to reminisce about the glory days. In attendance were all four founders of the company—Andreas Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla, Scott McNealy, and Bill Joy—who offered their perspectives on the technology business, past and present.

Sun Microsystems was one of the highest flying technology companies at the turn of the 21st century, challenging rivals like IBM and HP in enterprise data centers and producing a range of open source software technologies still popular today, including the Java programming language and the Jenkins CI/CD platform (originally called Hudson). Sun fell on hard times a decade ago and ended up being bought by Oracle, with the sale completed in early 2010.

A swipe at Facebook

But Sun had made its mark on the technology landscape, and the company is fondly remembered by former employees, many of whom gathered near San Francisco International Airport on September 28 for their second reunion since the Oracle acquisition. Among those proudest of Sun’s achievements was Sun founder and CEO Scott McNealy, who, taking the stage, had some sharp words for Facebook, which now occupies one of Sun’s former Silicon Valley campuses, without mentioning Facebook by name.

“I remember some company moved into one of our old headquarters buildings,” McNealy said. “And the CEO said, we’re going to leave the [Sun Microsystems] logos up because we want everybody in our company to remember what can happen to you if you don’t pay attention. This company could do well to do one-one-hundredth of what we did.”

Sun the mobile and open source pioneer

Prior to the formal festivities, the company founders met with a small group of press persons. Pondering recent developments in computing, Bill Joy, who is now concentrating on climate change solutions, recalled that Sun tried to do natural language processing, but the hardware was not fast enough. Regarding the emergence of the iPhone, Joy said the advent of mobility and data networks has been transformational for society. He noted that Sun had that kind of vision with Java ME, with Sun trying to do programmable smartphones. “But the hardware was just really nascent at the time,” Joy said. Machine learning, though, will be as transformational as the smartphone, he added.

McNealy emphasized Sun’s willingness to share technology, such as the Network File System (NFS), which helped to bring about the open source software movement now prevalent today. “We didn’t invent open source but we [made it] happen. We were the leader of that parade.” Asked if Sun should have moved from Sparc Risc processors and Solaris Unix to Intel processors and Linux, McNealy said he did not want to talk about mistakes he had made as Sun CEO but such a switch was not what Sun should have done.

McNealy hosts Trump

McNealy made headlines recently by hosting Pres. Donald Trump for a fundraiser in the San Francisco Bay Area, where technology companies have been viewed as leaning Democrat. McNealy declined to talk about the president’s views on technology, but he said that Sun had been apolitical and that he gets nervous when the government gets involved in technology. He even stood up for Facebook, saying it is a for-profit business and should not be disallowed from deleting people, shadow-banning, or putting people on probation.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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