Ex-Sun CEO Schwartz: ‘Jobs Threatened to Sue Me, Too’

Jonathan Schwartz, who was CEO of Sun Microsystems from 2006 until last month, on Tuesday published a blog post that leads off with: “I feel for Google – Steve Jobs threatened to sue me, too.” Why? In 2003, he unveiled Project Looking Glass, a prototype Linux desktop, and Mr. Jobs called to threaten a lawsuit because Sun was “stepping all over Apple’s IP.”

Mr. Schwartz went on to write: “My response was simple. ‘Steve, I was just watching your last presentation, and Keynote looks identical to Concurrence – 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.”

He said that was the last time he heard from Mr. Jobs regarding the subject - Sun abandoned Project Looking Glass, although Mr. Schwartz said it wasn’t the legal threat, it was the assumption that “the last thing enterprises wanted was a new desktop.” (An assumption he says in hindsight would have been shown to be wrong, if Sun had polled developers, rather than CIOs.)

Mr. Schwartz also contrasted that incident with a later meeting with Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. He recalls Mr. Gates leading off the discussion with: “Microsoft owns the office productivity market, and our patents read all over OpenOffice.” However, rather than threaten to sue, Mr. Gates said: “We’re happy to get you under license.” (In other words, have Sun pay a royalty for every download.)

Mr. Schwartz’s counter to that argument? “We’ve looked at .NET, and you’re trampling all over a huge number of Java patents. So what will you pay us for every copy of Windows?” Mr. Gates replied that royalties didn’t fit into Microsoft’s business model. “It was a short meeting,” Mr. Schwartz quips.

The lesson, according to Mr. Schwartz? “For a technology company, going on offense with software patents seems like an act of desperation, relying on the courts instead of the marketplace … Having watched this movie play out many times, suing a competitor typically makes them more relevant, not less. Developers I know aren’t getting less interested in Google’s Android platform, they’re getting more interested – Apple’s actions are enhancing that interest.”