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Sun selling CEO-autographed computers on eBay

Scott McNealy, following in the footsteps of Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, places his John Hancock on five of the company's new Sun Blade workstations and puts them up for auction.

Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy share more than just a loathing for Microsoft. Sun CEO Scott McNealy

Following in Ellison's footsteps, McNealy autographed five of his company's new Sun Blade workstations and put them up for auction on eBay on Wednesday.

Ellison pulled a similar publicity stunt in July when Oracle spinoff New Internet Computer Co. auctioned 10 Internet appliances with Ellison-signed authentication certificates on Amazon.

Although there still are seven days to go before the Sun Blade auction closes, Ellison's signature already appears to have been more of a pull to potential buyers.

The New Internet Computers were bid up to $1,850, more than nine times the regular $199 price tag, company spokesman Michael Salort said. But with the Sun Blades' bids up to $8,100 as of today, the McNealy name hasn't been enough to carry the models up to even the $10,000 price Sun expects to sell them for through normal channels.

McNealy's John Hancock left one bidder, Donald Goodwin, unmoved.

"I could care less if Mr. McNealy signs them or not. It's a neat marketing tool, but I doubt it will add value to the system later on," he said in an email. "The reason I am bidding is that the price is actually pretty reasonable for the level of performance these boxes should provide."

A price tag so far is a good deal, especially with a 21-inch monitor, but Goodwin said he expects the bidding to head north of his budget.

The Sun Blade 1000 is the first Sun workstation to use the new UltraSparc III chip that Sun unveiled this week.

Workstations are used by people with computation-demanding tasks such as creating animated movies, designing microprocessors or simulating car crashes.

The Sun Blades themselves are an improvement to Sun's workstation line. The new machines are second only in performance to Compaq Computer Alpha workstations in number-crunching power, D.H. Brown Associates analyst Sarang Ghatpande said. However, Sun's graphics performance is another story, a problem that has hindered Sun's entry into many segments of the workstation market.

"They definitely need to work on the graphics," Ghatpande said. "They're outdated compared to the rest of the competition."

Sun's top-end Expert3D card uses the same graphics chip technology as 3Dlabs' Wildcat Intense3D graphics card built for Windows computers, but the "driver" software used to control the cards hasn't been tuned as well, Ghatpande said.

"They took a Windows card and tweaked it around for Solaris," he said. "The raw performance is good, but the application performance is not that high."

It's too soon to tell whether upcoming graphics systems based on Sun's MAJC chip will work well, he added.

Unix workstations are generally more powerful than their Windows-Intel brethren, but the lower cost of the Intel machines is changing the market. The arrival of Intel's delayed 64-bit Itanium chip, which features much better calculating abilities than current chips, is expected to further boost Intel models.

Sun has been selling workstations, servers, storage systems and other products at auction sites eBay, TekSell and Mercata for months in an attempt to win new customers. The company also has expanded the program to let other companies that sell Sun hardware buy their goods from auction instead of just from Sun.

In the Intel workstation realm, SGI yesterday released its new Zx10 workstation, the latest model resulting from SGI's takeover of the Intergraph line. The Zx10 with a 933-MHz Pentium III has a bare-bones starting price of $5,135.