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Where did Sun go wrong?

Elizabeth Montalbano | April 13, 2009
One of Silicon Valley's biggest innovators faces a tough road alone after walking away from a deal with IBM

"It's weird because Sun is probably the most innovative and forward-looking company of any that I've seen," said John Crupi, CTO of enterprise mashups company JackBe and a former CTO for Sun's Enterprise Web Services group. "They were really good at doing cool engineering things. The problem was, they never managed to move up the stack and package those things into solutions that really let you use the technology and solved people's problems."

Stephen Hultquist, an IT industry veteran and principal with Infinite Summit in Boulder, Colorado, agreed that Sun never suffered from a lack of innovation and vision. Where its executives faltered was in their ability to get beyond the vision and give customers what they wanted to run their business, he said.

"Any company that doesn't continuously focus on the real benefits to their customers -- both current and future -- will eventually lose the mindshare of those customers," Hultquist said. "Customers buy what makes sense for their success and satisfaction, not what is 'best' in some esoteric, technical way. If that wasn't the case, Microsoft would not be the powerhouse that it is."

For instance, "the network is the computer" was Sun's slogan long before companies like Google and Salesforce.com built their businesses around the idea, and before cloud-computing became the buzzword du jour. But now many of the companies embracing cloud-computing and hosted services run Linux rather than Solaris in their data centers.

Sun also was one of the first to see that subscription-based software pricing would replace the traditional per-CPU model when multicore processors became prevalent. But by the time Sun had got itself together to offer software in this model, there was less interest in its Java software because customers were already using BEA or IBM's products.

Marie Beeson, who worked at Sun from 1999 to 2004 in its professional services division, compared Sun to Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) in its ability to create useful technologies but failure to capitalize on them. Xerox PARC created a lot of the technologies that made computers and widespread use of the Internet possible -- such as the GUI and Ethernet -- but is a research facility and not a profitable business.

"From a technical standpoint Sun was very innovative and had a lot of great technology, but didn't know how to really exploit those technologies," she said.

Observers identified three principal errors that, had they been avoided, might have allowed Sun to flourish after its dot-com business dried up. They are: not reacting to Linux by open-sourcing Solaris more quickly than it did; not building an x86 product line fast enough to sell alongside its Sparc systems; and not learning how to monetize the great Java technology it had created.

 

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