Like father, like Sun

Scott McNealy's server ads resemble those his father oversaw a generation earlier hawking cars for American Motors. Photos: Ads by McNealy and son

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
It's no secret that Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, an auto executive's son raised in Detroit's Motor City culture, has a tendency to see the computer business through car-tinted glasses.

But what hasn't been known is that his company has been cribbing sales pitches from his father--or at least adopting some similar advertising approaches.

R. William McNealy Jr. was vice chairman and vice president of marketing at American Motors Corp., where he oversaw ad campaigns that bear suspicious similarity to some Sun marketing messages. (For the curious, a treasure trove of AMC ads can be found at the ArcticBoy AMC Web site, run by enthusiast Bob Wilson.)

Sun and AMC ads

One Sun-AMC similarity, for example: Capitalizing on the economic pain of high fuel costs.

In 1974, amid the thick of oil troubles of that decade, AMC touted its iconic Gremlin as the car to buy to "relieve the fuel shortage." And this year, with oil costing more than $60 per barrel, Sun has chosen to spotlight the energy efficiency of its UltraSparc T1 "Niagara"-based servers. "Sip energy, gulp data," one ad reads, while another pictures a server chained to a tree slated for harvesting.

Both companies also had racy ads. AMC's featured Playboy's 1968 Playmate of the Year, Angela Dorian, perched atop a pink AMX. Sun's centerfold-themed ad featured its Sun Fire X4100 "Galaxy" server nestled on a rug in front a fireplace and surrounded by romantic candles and faux leopard-skin pillows.

Sun's McNealy assured CNET News.com in an e-mail interview that his father--now 78, living in Florida and playing golf with a handicap of about 10--isn't calling the ad shots at the server and software company. "He has not been consulting at Sun," he said.

However, one similarity in McNealy marketing is real: the periodically recurring product announcement.

In 1970, with the introduction of the Hornet, AMC declared, "Every six months for the next three years American Motors will introduce a new kind of car. This is our first."

For comparison, Sun in 2003 began its Network Computing announcement strategy, which tried to direct attention once per quarter on product announcements.

Sun's Solaris operating system is labeled by when it was released--January's Solaris 10 01/06 being the most recent version--in the same way cars are referred to by their model year. The periodic rollout is derived directly from the car business, if not necessarily from Bill McNealy himself.

"There is no question...model years/quarters are modeled after volume industries like autos," McNealy said.

McNealy holds his father in high esteem. "He pioneered multiyear warranties in the car business, leveraged the fuel crisis of the early '70s by featuring AMC's compact-car lines, and drove the acquisition of Jeep, which was one of the best-ever acquisitions in the car business," he said.

It didn't work out for the company, which Chrysler acquired in 1987. "The board of directors had a choice of him as CEO or the product guy. They chose wrong, and the rest is history," McNealy said.

Some have been happy with their American Motors products--ArcticBoy's Wilson among them. "All of the AMC cars that we had were good, long-lasting cars," Wilson said. "I've gotten thousands--tens of thousands at this point--of great e-mails with AMC stories from people over the years, and only two were negative so far."

McNealy has no illusions about the automaker's troubles.

"AMC suffered from several flaws including bad quality, ugly designs (have you looked at the Gremlin, Matador, Pacer?), high costs of union and pension burdens when the Japanese attacked the compact market first, and lack of scale as the No. 4 of the Big Three," McNealy said.

But the blame didn't lie with his father's domain, McNealy said. "They had the best marketing, though."