Sun's Ex-CEO: Here's How You Make Steve Jobs or Bill Gates Shut Up

Last Updated Mar 10, 2010 2:21 PM EST

Former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz has time on his hands since the Oracle (ORCL) acquisition, and he uses part of it to write a blog. A post yesterday gave some insight into how Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs has been threatening perceived competitors with legal action for years -- and what Schwartz did to shut Jobs up. The question I found myself asking is whether Jobs is just like Microsoft (MSFT) chairman Bill Gates, only in a black turtleneck.

One of the myths about Apple that I bought into until yesterday is that Jobs and company focused on leaving other companies in the dust through design, not through legal action intended to cripple them. However, apparently Apple has freely used legal threats for years to scare companies off product lines that Jobs considered too good. Schwartz tells a story of receiving a call from Jobs concerning a Linux-based graphical desktop that Sun had demoed. Jobs claimed that the graphical effects infringed on Apple's intellectual property and said, "I'll just sue you" if Sun kept developing the product:
My response was simple. "Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence â€" do you own that IP?" Concurrence was a presentation product built by Lighthouse Design, a company I'd help to found and which Sun acquired in 1996. Lighthouse built applications for NeXTSTEP, the Unix based operating system whose core would become the foundation for all Mac products after Apple acquired NeXT in 1996. Steve had used Concurrence for years, and as Apple built their own presentation tool, it was obvious where they'd found inspiration. "And last I checked, MacOS is now built on Unix. I think Sun has a few OS patents, too." Steve was silent.
I suspect there aren't many people who could reduce Jobs to silence. Sadly, the episode suggests how much Apple depends on scaring off potential competitors rather than just doing better than them. When Apple appeared to produce something innovative and no one caught up for years, the game may have more to do with legal bludgeoning than superior innovation.

Ironically, Schwartz also tells a story of Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer , who tried to force Sun to pay royalties on OpenOffice. Microsoft claimed that the product infringed on Microsoft Office-related patents. Sun pointed out that because Microsoft's .NET software development platform seemed to infringe on Java patents, a payment on every copy of Windows might be in order. "Bill explained the software business was all about building variable revenue streams from a fixed engineering cost base, so royalties didn't fit with their model-- which is to say, it was a short meeting," Schwartz wrote.

Who'd have thought that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would seem cut from the same cloth? And how many developments in high tech have found themselves shelved because a company couldn't afford to get in a legal match with Microsoft -- or Apple?

Duct tape image components via Flickr user andymangold, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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