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The galoot factor

Sun employees to the last have always struck me as generic "good guy" types who might have gone into insurance sales if their grades had been worse.

When it comes to Sun Microsystems, there are two schools of thought.

Some look at the company and see a loose federation of dedicated visionaries bent on pushing the envelope of the electronic frontier. Others see a bunch of rambunctious yahoos waiting for their next softball game.

Sun employees to the last have always struck me as generic "good guy" types who might have gone into insurance sales if their grades had been worse.

Think for a moment. Can you imagine Lou Gerstner inviting select technical employees over to his house for taco night? No. Can you picture Scott McNealy doing it? Easily. One former executive described how at Sun meetings, McNealy would keep his feet on the desk while barking out questions, kind of like Kaiser Wilhelm in a v-neck sweater.

Personally, I've always been partial to the latter image. And, although it may not be the dignified picture the company likes, it is that backslapping, gregarious nature that could become the company's best asset as it ventures forth on its deal with Intel.

Under terms of the new alliance announced Tuesday, Sun and Intel will work together to make the Solaris operating system more prevalent on Intel servers. Sun will port Solaris to Intel's Merced platform and then try to recruit hardware vendors to adopt it as their platform of choice over Windows NT. Intel will contribute technical and financial resources to the deal.

If hardware vendors and customers accept the idea and decide to make Solaris-based servers, Solaris could suddenly become the chief threat to Microsoft in the operating system arena. A large vendor such as Compaq or IBM could double the availability of Solaris in the corporate world in a short time. Sun has been licensing the OS to other vendors, but no one with a global reach.

Getting these large firms to cooperate won't be easy. Because Sun also makes servers, and because Solaris is already heavily identified with the company, major vendors are naturally going to be skittish about licensing the OS from a company that will remain a chief rival for corporate accounts.

Sun will also have to resist the temptation to keep too many technological tricks to itself, while countering background deals by Microsoft (which will offer these vendors more money than Sun can not to switch) and Intel (which will no doubt gripe about the revenue stream on the deal and continually try to extract demands). (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.).

Essentially, this is the road not taken by Apple. For years, everybody has effetely dismissed Apple's failure to license its proprietary OS. Sun is now doing that, but will have to undertake the next step in the equation, and prove a hardware company can really engage in a full-blown licensing program and still make money on its own hardware.

This is where the galoot factor comes in. Sun will have to establish an unprecedented level of trust with companies that the company has previously reviled as dopey, satanic, and inferior, who in turn will risk incurring the wrath of Microsoft by breaking ranks and switching to Solaris.

Trust and emotion are the dominant, but often ignored factors in diplomatic relationships. The bond that existed between Roosevelt and Churchill is often credited as a major factor in World War II. By contrast, discord between Gerry and the rest of the Pacemakers is often blamed for the demise of the Mersey Beat.

In Sun's case, relying on technological superiority alone will ensure failure. The technological argument works, but mostly with people who wear sweatshirts to trade shows.

Going overboard on emotion can be just as bad. Not to pick on Apple again, but the touchy-feely overtones of its approach to the world probably did as much to create its slide as anything else.

"We have good relationships with our partners, but it's not like we sit around the campfire singing 'Kum-Bay-Yah,'" is how one "big four" computer executive described how her company handles its partners.

So Sun will have to take the treacherous middle course, but it's a course that seems tailor-made for the people who flock to Sun. These people are experts at barbecue emotionalism: Shake hands and chat, but not for more than 15 seconds at a time. Showing physical scars in public is not permitted, unless they are easily accessible and you've been on a first-name basis with the viewers for at least 20 minutes. Only drink as much as is necessary to embarrass yourself. Discuss books, as long as the authors are Tom Clancy or Peter Drucker.

The qualities are there. It's now a matter of execution.