Opinion: Is Sun Losing its Spark?

Great Scott, what's going on? Sun and Microsoft recently agreed to bury the hatchet and concentrate on integration, not instigation. Is this good news for customers? Yes and no. Yes because it's high time someone began making an effort to make systems more interoperable. No because when big vendors make nicey-nicey with each other, especially when lawyers are involved, it's often time to run the other way.

Sun Microsystems always pitched itself as the anti-Microsoft, with chairman and CEO Scott McNealy entertaining many a conference audience with jabs at his huge competitor. In an industry of maniacs, McNealy outclassed them all with his anything-but-Microsoft mania. So it looks like no more Microsoft one-liners from McNealy, at least for now. Hopefully, he will still keep his sense of humor, $2 billion settlement or no $2 billion settlement.

Beyond that, it's always healthy to have vendors snarling at one another; trying to outdo and one-up one another with differing approaches and technologies at one level; while cooperating on another for customers' benefit. "Coopetition" is a way of life in the IT industry. But if things get too homogenized, and too standardized, we lose innovation and competitive advantage. Microsoft Office has nice features, but it's a shame that 95 percent of the world is locked into a single supplier for word processors, spreadsheets, and desktop databases. Sun's StarOffice, though it has too much the look and feel of Microsoft Office, is nevertheless a refreshing (and more cost-effective) alternative. We need runners-up to keep nipping at the heels of market leaders, to keep prices down and keep quality up.

That being said, who gains what from the recent Sun-Microsoft kiss-up? It seems, those in Sun's orbit stand to benefit more than Windows shops. But there may be a few nuggets of positive change for Windows sites as well.

At the outset, Microsoft gets Sun off its back in terms of lawsuits, and therefore has one less wolf at its door. Though Steve Ballmer may hotly deny it, it's impossible to imagine that all the legal and antitrust actions against Microsoft haven't drained key mindshare, bandwidth, and yes, finances, that could have gone into more productive pursuits, such as hardening Windows and other software from security threats and improving usability.

The most promising development from this new meeting of the minds is with Java. Java may finally get some support from Microsoft. .NET developers may find more interoperability with Java.

Sun, plain and simply, gets badly needed cash. The company has been bleeding in recent quarters, and a couple of billion dollars will relieve the pain for while. But what Sun intends to do with its new wealth is another question. In recent years, Sun's strategy has been a strange and contradictory agglomeration of technology initiatives. Sun is the Wall Street suit that yearns to dress down and read slam poetry in some hopelessly hip Greenwich Village cafe.

Sun's products either cost tens of thousands of dollars or they're virtually free. You might think of Sun as the proprietary open-source legacy cross-platform high-end low-end company. At least we always know where Microsoft stands. Sun has done some clever end-runs around Microsoft, attempting to usurp its competitor's lifeblood by simply giving similar products away for free. Java is perhaps the most popular language used in new-age IT environments. Sun also even ships Solaris free with some low-end workstations. And StarOffice looks and feels just like Microsoft Office, with a few nuanced changes.

But beyond the loss leaders or giveaways to draw customers away from a competitor, there has to be a next step to get them to open their wallets. But it's hard to imagine small shops that use free software ramping up to Solaris installations. As an alternative to Solaris onsite, McNealy always talked about his "Big Freaking Webtone Switch" as Sun's next model of computing – whatever that is, or was. But, alas, the company's fortunes rise and fall with sales of Solaris, not any of the cool and hip stuff. And Sun is still tied to expensive proprietary hardware (UltraSPARC processors).

Sun and Microsoft aren't necessarily even competitors at the operating systems level. What Sun apparently realized is that it's bread-and-butter Solaris base is not being threatened by Windows, but by Linux. In fact, Linux is hurting Sun a lot more than it's hurting Microsoft. Linux is very Unix-like, and is displacing many Unix applications. Why pay $25,000 for a proprietary operating system on proprietary hardware when you can get the same thing on a commodity-priced server for $2,000? Unix is a business that can't be sustained, and for Sun, it's make or break time. Sun can't afford to retreat and become the quiet company. We need companies like that around to keep the heat on the market leaders.

About the Author

Joe McKendrick is an independent consultant and author specializing in surveys, technology research and white papers. He's a contributing writer for