An engineer's engineering company to the core, Sun was an early backer of innovative technologies like NFS (Network File System), Java, which started as an internal project by early Sun employee James Gosling in 1991, and open source. That openness to new technologies, coupled with a scrappy corporate culture under hockey enthusiast CEO McNealy, helped Sun thrive throughout the 1990s as a foe of companies like IBM, Microsoft, and HP, even as the advent of personal computers running Intel processors and Microsoft's Windows operating system ate into the enterprise workstation market.
The rise of Windows on Intel systems, or "Wintel," was a one-two punch for Sun in the enterprise. At marquee customers like GM, which has been using Sun systems for about 10 to 15 years, Sun workstations long ago gave way to Wintel PCs, said CTO Fred Killeen. "Historically, we would use Sun workstations, less now. The big part of [the switch to Wintel] is the end users now have a common platform that supports all their desktop applications as well as the CAD and CAE applications," Killeen said.
Sun responded to the threat with characteristic pluck: disparaging Microsoft and looking to counter it with technologies like Java and OpenOffice. While those efforts did succeed in taking Microsoft down a notch, they did not do much for Sun, Enderle said.
But as the 1990s boom revved up to a spectacular collapse at the turn of the millennium, the combative attitude that helped Sun face down bigger rivals blinded it to a changing business environment, allowing competitors to build leads in such areas as Web services standardization and push non-Sun technologies like Intel chips and the Windows OS.
Ironically, Sun's previous flag-waving for Solaris and SPARC while momentum mounted for Intel and Linux may have blinded Sun to the need for reform within its own product line and placed the company in the position of appearing as a proprietary systems vendor -- a cruel fate for a company that had always prided itself on being open and based on industry standards.
Co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim said that the rise of Intel and Sun's not having an x86 system contributed to his decision to leave the company in 1995.
"I was getting worried that the cost performance of those systems was catching up with the SPARC architecture," said Bechtolsheim, who has since returned to Sun as chief architect of industry standard products.
But, historically, Sun has always shown a willingness to bend to industry whims, even if it means somebody else's work shares -- or takes -- the spotlight from Sun's own prized technologies. And that willingness to embrace change, backed by new CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who took over from McNealy in April 2006, has enabled Sun to pull up and out of its extended nosedive.
These days, Sun is offering Intel systems, just like Bechtolsheim suggested in the 1990s, while it continues to back SPARC. "It's the mainstream of the company. In fact, it's growing again," he said.
Sun is repositioning itself strategically as well. Under Schwartz's leadership, the company's focus has shifted from Sun's own proprietary Solaris Unix OS and SPARC RISC hardware to an open-source Solaris and the inclusion of Intel-powered computers on the Sun price list. Sun also offers systems powered by Intel-compatible AMD chips; Sun previously had sold some Intel systems prior to its agreement with AMD in 2003.