How the Sun continues to rise

I had sighed a sigh of relief when Sun Microsystems rejected a takeover bid from Big Blue in April last year. When Oracle entered the picture shortly after, I had hoped against hope that the European Commission would decree the union anticompetitive.

I had sighed a sigh of relief when Sun Microsystems rejected a takeover bid from Big Blue in April last year. When Oracle entered the picture shortly after, I had hoped against hope that the European Commission would decree the union anticompetitive.

But, as most of us would know by now, Sun will soon cease to be as Oracle now starts work on folding the company into its product roadmap.

I had hoped against hope that Sun would remain whole not because I have a strong affinity for Sun, or Oracle, but because of the loss it would mean for the tech industry.

For the same reason I'm glad Yahoo held out against the infamous Microsoft bid, as the dissolution of Sun now means one less major player in the market and one less customer choice.

More significantly, Sun was a regarded tech pioneer and poster child of the Internet economy--"the dot in dot-com", as Chairman Scott McNealy once coined--which value had peaked at US$200 billion during its heydays. While there are several other reputable hardware sellers who can easily--and eagerly waiting to--take its place, Sun's departure from the market marks the end of an era.

So where did it all go wrong?

I won't go into that debate here since so many others have already offered their views. Instead, I'd rather look at how the folks at Sun are managing the transition. CEO Jonathan Schwartz posted on his blog what read like a farewell note: "There's not a doubt in my mind Oracle's takeoff and ascent will be fast and dramatic. I wish the combined entity the best of luck, and have enormous confidence in the opportunity... Thank you for your support and commitment. I wish you all the best of luck building, taking advantage of (and likely wearing) the future!"

Schwartz then signed off as CEO of Sun, "a wholly owned subsidiary of Oracle". If the man's feeling sore about the merger, he certainly ain't showing it.

Critics argue it was under Schwartz's four-year leadership--along with his legendary ponytail--that Sun lost its way, placing his bets on branding fluff, ecosystems and community support, and a StarOffice partnership with Google that never quite paid off.

Whether Sun did fall under his hands remains debatable, but Schwartz has at least demonstrated some grace in his treatment of the merger and humility to concede when it was time to fold.

I met the CEO in the company's Menlo Park campus in August 2007 and while I stood taller, or so it seemed, at 1.73meters, Schwartz still cut a formidable figure.

Truth be told, I had to keep reminding myself not to gawk at his, erm, headgear, but I was also struck by his effortless eloquence and no-nonsense stance. The man knew where he wanted to take the company--wrongly or otherwise--and he was firm about his vision. During our conversation, he had proclaimed: "The network is our life now... What is a network and what is a computer? They're now inextricable... There is no computing device, of any interest anyway, that is not networked and there is no network that I know of where there's no outlet to a device."

Schwartz was expanding on Sun's singular vision, since the company was founded in 1982, that "the network is the computer".

It would have been interesting to see, particularly as the cloud computing era is touted to now be taking shape, how this Sun philosophy would have played out and where the company would have eventually ended up. If the analysts are right, that most apps and services are bound for the cloud, then Sun's maxim may well be right--access to this vast Web network is the device. And the company would have had the chance to say: We told you so.

But, now, I guess we'll never know.

It's never easy to admit defeat, especially for a person like Schwartz who seems to take great pride in his beliefs and ideals. He must have eaten several humble pies before making that very tough decision to fold, no doubt, strongly encouraged by Sun's shareholders.

But it is only with humility that we can move ahead. What can we possibly learn if we think we already know everything? I'm sure Schwartz will take the lessons he's picked up at Sun, and appply them on the venture cap firm he's probably gonna start with his much-speculated multi-million dollar severance pay.

Where Oracle will now take Sun remains to be seen. But, at the very least, Schwartz has given the open source community two very viable enterprise products, Solaris and Java--though, ironically, some would argue the move also spelt the downfall of Sun, which no longer had two very viable enterprise products to sell.

Regardless, for as long as the open source community continues to build upon Java and Solaris, then Sun will continue to rise, even if the company has ceased to exist.


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