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McNealy--apres moi, you'll be bored silly

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says he'll miss the former Sun CEO's straight-talking ways.

In an era so dominated by cardboard cutout CEOs, I could always count on Scott McNealy to liven up the party. Then again, I'm not an investor.

McNealy, who stepped down as Sun Microsystems's chief executive on Monday, never missed an opportunity to throw out the cheesiest, most outrageous quote imaginable, knowing full well the press hounds would pounce. (Who says MBAs are oblivious to how the Fourth Estate works?)

I'll leave to others any consideration of his legacy and whether McNealy's resignation bodes well for Sun. Over the years, McNealy has taken his lumps in this space for his inability to find--and stick with--a winning strategy. Even as other technology companies revived from their dot-bust nadirs, Sun remained stuck in neutral. With the stock stuck for nearly 13 months under $5, Wall Street obviously didn't believe in the company. But Sun shares have rebounded of late and--I say this tentatively--a revamped product strategy appears to be gaining traction.

That will probably mean more than his bravado to the historians who take McNealy's measure. Still, the attribute that I always found endearing was his willingness to stand up in a room and face hostile questioning. Unlike, oh, 99.9 percent of the white-bread phonies who present themselves as corporate leaders, McNealy was the real deal when it came to leadership.

We weren't drinking buddies. Many times, I found him to be utterly obnoxious. A few years ago, he seemingly went out of his way at one press conference to bust my chops--but credit the dude for always making it entertaining. He is not the sort to duck behind a battalion of faceless flacks, or let someone's PR script interfere with what he really thought of you. In that sense, he was a welcome throwback to the early days of the PC business.

McNealy is not the sort to duck behind a battalion of faceless flaks, or let someone's PR script interfere with what he really thought of you.

To be sure, McNealy knew how to run his mouth better than any tech exec I ever saw this side of Jim Manzi, the former Numero Uno at Lotus. Both Manzi and McNealy knew how to put on a good show, and their companies received extra ink as a result. But there's something to be said for having the courage of your convictions.

Manzi wasn't averse to getting in a reporter's face either, but at least you knew where he stood. And he helped Lotus carve out an underdog persona during its (ultimately) losing struggle against Microsoft. How much was Manzi worth in good PR? Just compare the company's public image post-IBM. Pop quiz: Who runs Lotus these days? If you need to Google the answer, you proved my point.

Jonathan Schwartz, the new Sun CEO, is quite a smart guy. Had he not sold his company to Sun in 1996, it's easy to envision him winding up at Microsoft. Schwartz is tech-savvy, knows tons about business and is utterly convinced he's right about everything when it comes to his company.

The rap against Schwartz, that he lacks gravitas, is unfair. During the conference call held announcing the official passing of the baton, he sounded forceful enough. Besides, even without the title, the guy has basically run Sun for the last year. What's unknown is whether Schwartz has enough charisma to avoid easy comparisons with his larger-than-life predecessor.

A year from now, we'll know the answer to that question. In the meantime, I'm willing to make one prediction: I'll miss McNealy and all his attitude.