Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Sun Microsystems: In Memoriam

So many memories …

I first became really aware of Sun in the late ‘80s, when I was working for Prime. At the time, Sun was one of the two new competitors in the area of engineering workstations – itself a new market. The key area of competition was cross-machine file systems that made multiple workstations look like one system – in other words, you’d invoke a program on one machine, and if it didn’t reside there, the file system would do a remote procedure call (RPC) to the other. Sun’s system was called NFS.

Yes, Sun won that war – but the way it did it was a harbinger of things to come. With more than a little chutzpah, Sun insisted that Unix was the right way to do networked file systems. Now, at the time, there was nothing to indicate that Unix was better (or worse) than any other operating system for doing cross-machine operations. But Sun’s marketing tapped into a powerful Movement in computing. This Movement – geeks, first movers, technology enthusiasts, anti-establishment types – gave Sun a niche where established players like Prime and DEC could not crowd Sun off buyers’ short lists. The Movement was very pro-Unix, and that allowed Sun to establish itself as the engineering-workstation market leader.

Sun’s next marketing message appealed to the Movement very much: it said it was going down-market and attacking Microsoft. In fact, that became a feature of Sun for the next 15 years: Scott McNealy would get up at Sun sales, investor, and analyst events and make cracks about Bill Gates and Microsoft. Of course, when you looked closely at what was happening, that was pretty much hogwash: Sun wasn’t cutting into the PC market, because it couldn’t cut prices that much. Instead, Sun’s pricing was cutting into minicomputer low-end markets. Because PCs and Novell LANs were cutting into those markets far more, the demise of minicomputer vendors is rightly ascribed to PCs. But Sun’s real market growth came from moving up-market.

As everyone remembers, Scott McNealy as the public face of Sun had a real gift for pithy phrases criticizing competitors that really stuck in people’s minds. My favorite is the time in the early 1990s when IBM as Big Blue joined with Apple (corporate color: red) in a consortium to develop a common standard for some key market and crowd others out: Scott derided the result as “purple applesauce.”

But what really saved Sun in the early 90s was not the Movement nor Scott’s gift for credulity-straining claims. First among engineering-workstation vendors, Sun decided to move into servers. This took Sun from techie markets (although not consumer markets) to medium-scale to large-scale corporate IT – not the easiest market to crack. But at the time, lines of business were asserting their independence from central IT by creating their own corporate networks, and Sun was able to position itself against IBM, Unisys, NCR/AT&T, and HP in growing medium-scale businesses and lines of business. While Silicon Graphics (number 2 in workstations) waited too long to move into servers and spent too much time trying to move down-market to compete with Microsoft, Sun grew in servers as the workstation market matured.

I remember talking to the trade press at that time and saying that Sun’s days of 90%/year revenue growth were over. As a large company, you couldn’t grow as fast as a smaller one, and especially not in the server market. I wasn’t wrong; but I certainly didn’t anticipate Sun’s amazing growth rate in the late 90s. It was all due to the Internet boom in Silicon Valley. Every startup wanted “an Oracle on a Sun”. Sun marketing positioned Java as part of the Movement – an object-oriented way of cutting through proprietary barriers to porting applications from one machine to another – and all the anti-Microsoft users flocked to Sun. Never mind the flaws in the language or the dip in programmer productivity as Java encouraged lower-level programming for a highly complex architecture; the image was what mattered.

Sun’s marketing chutzpah reached its height in those years. I remember driving down the Southeast Expressway in Boston one day and seeing a Sun billboard that said “We created the Internet. Let us help you create your Internet.” Well, I was at Computer Corporation of America with full access to the Internet back in the early 1980s when the Internet was being “created”, and I can tell you that BBN was the primary creator of the Internet aside from the government and academia, and Sun was far less visible in Internet newsgroups than most other major computing vendors. Yet when I pointed this out to a Sun marketer, he was honestly surprised. Ah, the Koolaid was sweet in those days.

It is fashionable now to say that Sun’s downfall came because it was late to embrace Linux. It is certainly true that Sun’s refusal to move aggressively to Linux cost it badly, especially because it ran counter to the Movement, and my then colleague Bill Claybrook deserves lots of credit for pushing them early and hard to move to Linux. But I think the real mistake was in not moving from a company focused on hardware to one focused on software during the Internet-boom years. Oh, there were all sorts of excuses – B-school management theory said you should focus on services, and Sun did beef up its middleware – but it was always reacting, always behind, never really focused on differentiation via software.

The mood at analyst meetings during the Internet-bust years was highly defensive: You guys don’t get us, we’ve shown before that we see things no one else sees and we’ll do it again, all our competitors are suffering too. And yet, the signs were there: talking to an Oracle rep, it became clear that Sun was no longer one of their key partners.

I am less critical of Jonathan Schwartz than some other commentators I have read. I think that he was dealt a hand that would lose no matter how he played it. The Internet-boom users had gone forever, leaving a Sun with too high a cost structure to make money from the larger corporations and financial-services markets that remained. In fact, I think that however well he executed, he was right to focus on open source (thereby making peace with the Movement) and software. At my last Sun do in 2007 when I was with Illuminata, the sense of innovation in sync with the Movement was palpable – even if Sun was mostly catching up to what other open-source and Web efforts like Google’s were doing. But underlying the marketers’ bravado at that event was depression at the endless layoffs that were slowly paring back the company. The analysts’ dinner was populated as much by the ghosts of past Sun employees as by those that remained.

Even as a shadow of its former self, I am going to miss Sun. I am going to miss the techie enthusiasm that produced some really good if way over-hyped ideas that continue to help move the industry forward. I am going to miss many of the smart, effective marketers and technologists still there that will probably never again get such a bully pulpit. I am going to miss a competitor that still was part of the ongoing debate about the Next Big Thing, a debate which more often than not has produced the Next Big Thing. I’m not going to miss disentangling marketing claims that sound good but aren’t true, or competitor criticisms that are great sound bites but miss the point, while watching others swallow the Sun line, hook and sinker included; but the days when Sun’s misdeeds in those areas mattered are long past.

Rest in peace, Sun. All you employees and Sun alumni, take a bow.


Prasana said...

Wayne: A nice walk down memory lane; i remember the transitions from SunOS to Solaris and being a proud owner of the SparcStation for my first startup. will be interesting to see how and what sees light of day in the oracle incarnation.

Wayne Kernochan said...

Hi Prasana - If you get it, my colleague Charles King's Pund-IT Review has some good thoughts on what lies ahead (I added my thoughts on Sun's infrastructure software, not including Solaris).

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