Reporter's notebook: Sundown for Sun?

A brash upstart-turned-industry-stalwart has provided drama over the years, but became too tied to its technology

It looks like an old friend of mine, Sun Microsystems, may be going the way of the dinosaur. Sort of, anyway. Or maybe just transformed. We all have to wait and see.

With continued rumors floating around that IBM may buy troubled Sun (and neither company doing much to refute these rumors), the whole escapade is like wondering what will happen at the end of a suspense thriller. At this writing, everyone sits and waits for word on whether Sun will be absorbed by IBM or perhaps made into some sort of semi-independent IBM subsidiary. A third possibility is that the whole merger never comes to fruition at all.

[ Get the continuing coverage of IBM-Sun news with InfoWorld's special report "IBM in talks to buy Sun" ]

Having covered Sun for most of the past 19 years, I have witnessed the company move from being a young, mega-success to a struggling, established giant in the computer technology realm. Sun started out competing with established giants such as IBM (how ironic is that?), Hewlett-Packard, and Digital Equipment, which itself bit the dust several years ago, as well as with Apollo Computer. Founded by four men bringing in a mixture of business sense, technological genius, and competitive aggressiveness, Sun has been the place to go for technology superstars such as Java founder James Gosling and XML co-inventor Tim Bray.

Indeed, the impressive Sun team has spanned multinational boundaries, with co-founders Scott McNealy and Bill Joy hailing from the United States, co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim from Germany, and co-founder Vinod Khosla from India. Outside of the founders' ranks, Gosling and Bray are both from Canada, and other top officials at Sun also hail from around the globe.

It hasn't always been a cordial relationship with Sun for me. The company once tried to find the source of a story I did about upcoming multiprocessor systems way back in the early 1990s. But Sun has never been boring, and it has always been a challenge covering what Sun was up to.

Over the years, I've watch Sun take on the industry in such heated matchups as the OpenLook versus OSF/Motif GUI battle on the Unix desktop and watched its Unix OS square off against Unix variants such as HP-UX and IBM AIX. On the chip side, Sun's SPARC RISC chip vied for the hearts of IT against IBM Power, HP PA-RISC, and DEC Alpha. Sun always did its own thing and was undaunted when opposed by more established companies such as it did when it faced off against OSF (the Open Software Foundation).

But it seems like Sun and the rest of the Unix vendors lost both the desktop and server battles, with Microsoft seizing the desktop with Windows while Linux and Microsoft now duel on the server side of the house. Sun has had its issues with Microsoft, pitting, for example, Java versus Windows. But the companies made nice in a 2004 interoperability agreement.

Even the signature Sun Java technology spawned IBM's formation of Eclipse (as in eclipse of the sun), offering an open source tools effort for Java. Other companies have have been forced to take notice of Sun efforts such as Java and Network File System.

Now, Sun, which was founded in 1982, might go away via the acquisition route similar to other once-promising technology companies such as BEA Systems, Siebel Systems, PeopleSoft, and Tandem. The list of acquired technology companies certainly is a long one.

How Sun got to this point can be debated. Undoubtedly, many factors come into play. But it seems clear that to an extent, a company that has billed itself as the flyer of the open systems flag has been hit hard by anchoring itself to technologies now viewed as proprietary. Or, they are at least viewed as Sun-dominated technologies even if others can use them.

While also offering systems running AMD or Intel chips, Sun's bread-and-butter chip platform has been SPARC RISC. Meanwhile, Intel has established itself as the de facto chip architecture of sorts, supported by software platforms such as Microsoft Windows and PC giant Dell. (For those of you who don't remember what RISC stands for, and it's been a while since it mattered much, it’s Reduced Instruction Set Computer.)

On the OS side, Sun has always been a Unix vendor. But like the ice man at the advent of the refrigerator, Sun cast its lots on Solaris in the early 1990s, and afterward Linux grew and grew.

A criticism Sun has endured was that it has been unable to make money from the Java technology it invented. A Sun official recently told me, though, that Java revenues have gone up since the November 2006 move to offer Sun's Java implementation via open source.

(Sun's focus on open sourcing its software has caused consternation, with a former vice president saying in 2007 that it was one reason he left the company. The official, Larry Singer, felt the company should have been more focused on generating revenues.)

Also a problem for Sun, as CEO Jonathan Schwartz acknowledged in a recent blog, is customers who are themselves struggling. "I am routinely talking to customers now partially owned by governments, whose share prices have declined 95 percent or more, whose balance sheets and basic business models are under extraordinary duress. Like every business, our health is a derivative of our customers', and to that end, we've got our challenges -- sure, innovation loves a crisis, but only after customers have stepped out from under their desks," Schwartz wrote.

Meanwhile, Sun keeps plugging away as if we're not supposed to notice the Sun-IBM reports. The company recently made its splash into the cloud computing space and is promoting Solaris for Intel's Nehalem chip.

The next chapter in this saga will be actually reporting on what happens with Sun and what kind of independence, if any, IBM will let Sun maintain. Or, this whole drama could end up with nothing happening at all.

We'll just have to stay tuned.

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