Fighting The Wrong Fight?

Sun Microsystems is considered a leading "anti-Microsoft" company by people in the Internet space. But what exactly does it mean to lead by being against somebody else?

Sun Microsystems is considered a leading "anti-Microsoft" company by people in the Internet space. But what exactly does it mean to lead by being against somebody else?

To the extent that Sun asserts its own initiative and fights to establish its technology, as it has done with Java, being against Microsoft strikes me as a sound strategy. When being against Microsoft also means being against the personal computer and the changes that it has wrought, an anti-Microsoft strategy strikes me as shortsighted and self-defeating.

In numerous instances I have watched the debate go back and forth within Sun. Solaris is superior to Windows NT and no one should bother with NT, trumpets one branch of the Sun organism, while another tries to convince the thousands of NT users that no one can better integrate with NT than Sun. The dichotomy breeds doubt in the minds of customers whether Sun will allow itself to learn enough about NT to become a good integrator.

More so than other companies, we see ideological pronouncements out of Sun. Then we see a more pragmatic accommodation to the realities of the marketplace and backtracking, and when the backpedaling is tied to a product, it usually fails.

This tension is internalized in the pronouncements of Chairman Scott McNealy himself. McNealy deserves a lot of credit for wanting to fight rather than accommodate Microsoft. And Sun has done so more effectively than some of its predecessors in the ring, such as Novell or Lotus. In their shadow-boxing days, Novell and Lotus pretended to throw punches at Microsoft, but basically they withdrew into a corner and wrung their hands as Microsoft rolled over their markets. McNealy has staked out ground and then fought for it.

There is a brave new era of computing coming, but we won't get to it simply by being anti-Microsoft. Sun has come up with a new move that strikes me as both anti-Microsoft and sound strategy.

By acquiring the Star Division Corp. in August, it gained a set of applications that run under Windows, OS/2 and Linux, and will make them available to portable devices via a portal server. There is likely to be some charge for the portal applications, but Sun is enhancing the offer by continuing to make StarOffice available for free download at www.sun.com/staroffice. This is borrowing a page from the Linux book, where the StarOffice applications have been available for free download and low-priced CD purchase.

This move is anti-Microsoft, in that it erodes the ground on which Microsoft wishes to extend its application dominance into the new age. It is not, however, anti-personal computer, since full-fledged versions of the applications - word processing, spreadsheet and presentation graphics - run on PCs. And the Star versions of the applications can import files from Microsoft Office applications.

In another move, Sun acquired Forte Software, the maker of a tool set that includes the strong, cross-platform Java tool, SynerJ. Sun needs to be a Java tool vendor to avoid conceding the Java tool market to Microsoft, which remains an excellent developer tool company.

Sun will do best when it enhances customer choice through its own technology rather than trying to undercut the PC revolution.

Charlie Babcock is Technology Editor at Inter@ctiveWeek. You can reach him on the Internet at cbabcock@zd.com.

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