Why Sun Microsystems Failed - InformationWeek

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Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Why Sun Microsystems Failed

Former CEO Scott McNealy's allegiance to Sun's hardware culture shortchanged its software initiatives, and ultimately doomed the company.

Sun eventually produced Solaris for x86 in order to claim that Solaris was a multi-chip system, but for several years, it didn't take the port seriously. Solaris initially ran like a snail on Intel, and few outside of Sun took it seriously. Then Linux became a serious threat, eroding Sun's low-end Unix customer base, and Sun revamped its offering into a suitable competitor. But it was too late.

To illustrate what a slow learner Sun was on this point, the same issue arose with Java a few years later. Java came along as customer interest was peaking in the Internet. Many corporate programmers had no idea how Java would help them thrive in the Internet age, but it was clear things were changing and here was the first modern language that seemed in step with the times. In fact, a whole battery of languages would spring up to serve the new era, but as a viable newcomer, Java had no peer as it gained traction inside companies in the mid-1990s. If the "metal wrapping" of Solaris on Sparc had been a mistake, Java offered an opportunity recoup to reach out to legions of new customers with vendor-neutral software.

"When we go into a company, we say, "Java, Java Java,' then sell servers," a prominent Sun executive told me at JavaOne in 1999 as the dotcom boom was well underway. Java was a passport through corporate resistance and a trump card in a hardware/software sale. If the product came from the inventor of Java, it had to be right for the times, and Sun joined in the boom.

In the midst of this frenzy, the Sun hardware culture still secularized the universal appeal of Java to its own hardware. You could write code once and run it anywhere, thanks to the portability of the Java virtual machine, but if you wanted the JVM to run where it would perform the best, then you needed Sun hardware, was the concluding message at numerous JavaOne speeches and session presentations in the dotcom boom. This was eventually revised, but the proprietary air Sun maintained over Java left its mark.

Sun had reorganized and created within its ranks JavaSoft as an independent business unit. JavaSoft executives in effect headed a software company that wanted to see the language as widely established as possible and they welcomed the support of IBM, HP, and other large companies which, in many other areas, were tough competitors. But JavaSoft's message was mixed. It extended an olive branch with one hand, even as it affirmed it planned to keep a competitive advantage over how the Java Virtual Machine ran under Solaris. Sun needed to neutralize the tensions, but McNealy, with his love of showmanship, tended to increase them. HP was an excellent "printer company," he would say, while IBM excelled mainly at charging you for services; only Sun coud truly offer Java performance.

Java's success seemed only to make McNealy more strident, as Sun realized how much Java had come to mean to some of its competitors and how much they wished it could be taken out of Sun's hands (and put under a public standards body).

Dozens of young software companies sprang up to capitalize on the portable new language, and Sun struggled to cope with their demands. On the one hand, it found them troubling in their insistence that Sun not compete directly with their young businesses. On the other, they were a help in establishing an ecosystem around Java and counterbalancing the weight of HP, IBM, and other big Java adopters.

JavaSoft as a software company needed to pick its spots, compete on tools and let the chips fall where they may. It didn't do that. Nor at times did it know whether the Java ecosystem consisted of helpers or competitors. Sun started out strongly in Java tools, a legitimate endeavor for its software culture, then backed away, as it caught flack that it had an unfair position as the language's caretaker. The hardware culture was unpracticed at playing the role of honest broker.

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