Why Sun should spin off Java

Sun's insistence that Java is still its flagship product is holding back both the platform and the company

When I left you last time it was Beat Up Sun Microsystems Day. It's always painful when that time of year comes around -- I'd love to see a strong, healthy Sun as much as anyone. But since the company's last, disappointing earnings report, the other shoe has dropped, and now here come the layoffs. Maybe I should just leave Sun alone for a while?


[ InfoWorld's bloggers weigh in on Sun's future: "Should Apple acquire Sun Microsystems?" and "Sun shines dimly in Big Blue's shadow" ]

It's all well and good when the industry press talks about what an enterprise technology company should be doing. But when the investor press gets in on it, watch out. Last week, Forbes published an editorial by Andy Greenberg and Rebecca Buckman -- a survey of analyst opinion about Sun -- entitled no less than "What Sun Needs to Survive."

Among the recommendations: Spin off Java. Just get rid of it -- farm it out to an industry consortium and let the companies that depend upon it manage it, "killing another sacred cow."

Steaks for dinner
It's not a bad idea, and it comes from a pretty smart guy. He's Peter Yared, who is not technically an analyst but a former Sun exec who worked in the company's identity management and application server divisions. Post-Sun, he founded a company called ActiveGrid (now WaveMaker) and more recently iWidgets, a content syndication platform provider.

Today, Yared would like to see Sun seriously streamline its product offerings. He thinks Sun should sell off its Sparc business and concentrate on x86 processors. More importantly, he thinks Java is ripe for the axe. "Honestly, it's a legacy language at this point," he says.

Yared has some history as a Java gadfly. Around 2006, he wrote an open letter to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, raising what at that time was still a heretical idea: Sun should open-source the Java platform. The gist of it was that if Sun opened Java, it could work better with other languages that might want to run on the JVM. "Why is it good to open source OpenSolaris and OpenOffice and bad to open source Java?" Yared asked.

Obviously, it isn't 2006 anymore. Java is almost completely open source now, and the work to get other languages working with the JVM proceeds apace. But apparently Yared still isn't satisfied.

Funny thing: Yared left Sun in 2003. If we dial the InfoWorld Wayback Machine back to 2003, we can listen in on what analysts were saying about Sun then. Shh! Quiet! The vibrations are coming in. "Merrill Lynch ... concerned about losses ... faces crisis ... shelve Sparc and go with x86 ... and spin off Java."

Coincidence? I wonder where Peter Yared was when Merrill Lynch's Steven Milunovich was making those recommendations. (I suppose I could just ask him, but that would be no fun.)

Still, although the remark about sacred cows was the Forbes reporters' words and not Yared's, I think it hits the mark. Yes, Sun has released Java as open source. The cow has wandered out of the barn, but it's still sacred. Maybe it's time someone ran up and killed it.

The platform as branding
Jonathan Schwartz has other ideas. His blog has had an increasingly beleaguered tone to it lately, but he remains one of the most open CEOs in the business. In a recent post, he took it upon himself to explain the revenue structure for Java. (Note: When I first wrote this, Schwartz's post had a different title, "The Value of Distribution of Java," which you can still see in the URL.)

In a nutshell, Schwartz says it's a bad idea to kill sacred cows when you still depend on them for milk. The Java runtime is installed on a lot of systems. Those systems naturally want patches and updates to Java, and Java has an automated mechanism to provide those updates. That automated mechanism gives Sun a pipeline to millions of computer users. And, Schwartz says, Sun can monetize that pipeline, through partnership deals and marketing opportunities.

Get it? If you have Java installed, you're a Nielsen family.

I'll have more to say about this up-and-coming concept soon, but for now, suffice it to say that it sounds like an awful idea. Bottom line, branding has never been Sun's forte. Sun even changed its stock ticker symbol from SUNW to JAVA, fer pete's sake -- and yet, nearly 14 years since Java was first released in 1995, its mind share among consumers remains basically zero, no matter what Sun thinks. If Sun starts pushing "co-branding opportunities" and "channel partners" through its auto-update mechanism now, it can only drive consumers away -- straight into the arms of some other provider of the GPL-licensed platform.

No, I'm afraid I'm with Peter Yared on this one. Jonathan Schwartz, I'm sorry that those horrible Forbes reporters called Java a cow, sacred or otherwise. She's not a cow. She's your daughter, and she still has a bright future ahead of her. The problem is, she came of age in 1995 -- which makes her almost 32 now -- and she's been married for two years. Please, Jon -- let her move out of the house, OK? Sun will find hobbies. (Ever thought about being an IT vendor?)

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