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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

Sun finally came out in support of Linux in 2003, around the same time it launched its first x86 server line. The next year it open-sourced Solaris through a project called OpenSolaris. But by then Linux already had the support of IBM and Oracle, which eased the concerns of customers worried about big-company support behind the open source OS, and lower-cost x86 boxes running Linux or Windows were replacing Solaris in many enterprises.

Some feel that if Sun had open-sourced Solaris sooner, Linux would not have become the popular low-cost alternative to Unix that it is today.

Joe Lindsay, vice president of engineering for interactive media firm Brand Affinity Technologies, thinks Sun could have headed off the Linux phenomenon by focusing earlier on its software business, rather than favoring its hardware, from which it derived most of its revenue.

"If they had focused on becoming a software company like Microsoft -- selling OSes and software on top of that -- Linux may have never needed to be created," he said. "If Solaris was as accessible and available [on servers] as Windows on the desktop is, then Linux may never have happened."

Lindsay left a job at IBM in 1995 to work at companies with Sun-centric data centers because at the time he was a big fan of Solaris. Now he works mainly with Linux and other open-source software that Sun did not create, even though Sun has now open-sourced almost all of its products, including Solaris, that once were proprietary.

For sure, some say Sun could have done nothing to stop the march of Linux, even if Sun could have made moves to compete more effectively against it. Mitesh Tahker, a consultant with Laksh Systems, which serves the New York financial services industry -- once a major market for Solaris but now a Linux stronghold -- was a Linux early adopter, and said the OS took off because it was vendor neutral, not just because it was open source.

Failing to turn Java into a large, profitable business early on -- which IBM and others did so successfully -- was the third of Sun's tactical missteps. Though the company created Java as a development technology in 1995, it didn't really put its application-server house in order definitively until early 2004, when it pulled the components of its Java software stack together under the Java Enterprise System (JES).

By that time, IBM and BEA (now part of Oracle) were already the only two Java-based software vendors that mattered, and the open-source JBoss app server -- now part of Red Hat -- was on its way to commoditizing the Java middleware stack.

Sun did have an application server called iPlanet long before JES. But it took too long to make iPlanet compatible with the then-J2EE standard, now called Java EE -- an important criteria for some customers, and one that Sun helped to develop. Sun struggled because it had acquired three technologies -- NetDynamics, Forte and Kiva -- and none of them were J2EE compliant, Crupi, the former Sun Web services CTO, said.


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