The iPlanet group, originally called the Sun-Netscape Alliance, was spawned by America Online's acquisition of Netscape Communications in 1998. As part of the deal, e-commerce software products, programmers and salespeople from Sun Microsystems and Netscape were merged into an independent group that became iPlanet.
But iPlanet has been losing its independence, a process likely to come to a complete end on March 17, when the agreement between Sun and AOL Time Warner expires. Sun has been gradually moving iPlanet functions within the rest of Sun, and AOL Time Warner's influence has been waning.
In August, AOL announced plans to lay off 500 iPlanet personnel. But what wasn't revealed at the time was that Sun immediately rehired 85 percent of those employees.
"We just flipped their badges," Wes Wasson, vice president of infrastructure product marketing for iPlanet, said in an interview Thursday. Sun got "virtually 100 percent of the ones we targeted and wanted," not hiring only those such as human resources personnel whose functions were duplicated.
Wasson said that in February, Sun absorbed iPlanet's market development activity--work such as luring programmers and software partners. Corporate marketing activities followed in May, he said, allowing iPlanet's sales efforts to piggyback on Sun's thousands-strong sales force.
The result will be less exposure to unpleasant market forces that are pressuring independent iPlanet competitors such as Art Technology Group, SilverStream Software and Blue Martini Software, said Forrester analyst Kyle Johnson. "iPlanet probably will benefit from the shelter of a company like Sun," he said.
That shelter may not look so cozy with the 3,900 layoffs Sun announced Friday. But iPlanet is assured a prominent place at Sun as the Palo Alto, Calif., company seeks to broaden its activities from selling just the high-powered server computers.
The moves at iPlanet actually are a formalization of a practical reality, said Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin. "Officially they had been maintaining this position that it was independent, but it wasn't really. It's been run by Sun...since late 1999, right after (Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreessen left."
Sun has full ownership of all iPlanet intellectual property, Wasson said, but issues such as the revenue-sharing agreements between AOL Time Warner and Sun will have to be negotiated.
Another possibility of the Sun takeover is that the software could become linked more tightly to Sun's Solaris operating system and UltraSparc-based servers, with versions for other operating systems such as Linux or Windows waning in importance. "I think that's already happening," Johnson said, not only with iPlanet but also with IBM's WebSphere and HP's Bluestone.
Wasson insists that's not the case. "This is not a pure Sparc/Solaris play. For long-term success, this will continue to be a multi-platform environment," he said.