As my colleague Dan Farber has already pointed out, News.com's Stephen Shankland has penned an analysis piece that pretty much exhausts all of the possibilities that could come out of a Sun-Google partnership (being announced as I press the publish button). It's worth pointing out, however, that the subset of those possibilities that got announced today will not be the end all/be all of the Sun Google relationship. In scanning Shankland's list -- everything from Google using Sun's gear to StarOffice playing some sort of role in Google's assault on the desktop (although it was OpenOffice.org that was casually mentioned in the announcement) -- I wouldn't rule out any of them over an extended period of time.
Over the duration of the newly minted relationship, the one wild card that sticks out in my mind as the most exciting possibility is the one where Google finally takes that laggard desktop Java and does something big with it. Think about it. The ecosystem around server side Java -- known as "big Java" inside Sun but Java EE (Enterprise Edition) everywhere else -- is thriving. So much so that the open source crowd has crashed the party (a real sign that you've got something useful to a lot of people). The ecosystem around mobile Java -- otherwise known as J2ME -- is doing quite well too. There's probably a gazillion phones out there with Java on them and all sorts of handset-oriented apps now finally taking advantage of that platform's pervasiveness. But then there's desktop Java. Always sort of hanging around in the background occasionally getting used, but with no real killer application that has sent it into the stratosphere.
Naysayers will haul out the portability card and talk about how lack of connectivity from every corner of the Earth means cloud-based computing won't be a reality any time soon. This is FUD. The funny thing is that I just realized how a goodly 95 percent of the computing I do -- authoring blogs (aka: creating documents), checking e-mail, browsing the Web, chatting, uploading photos, and VoIP -- is all cloud-based. I'm not sure when it happened, but for me, the network did indeed become the computer (as Sun has promised all along). The bottom line is that the entire planet (including the friendly skies) will be blanketed with a signal one day. That'll cover me and most of you for the remaining 5 percent of the time a thin-client approach might not otherwise work. No wonder Google is busy on the solution right now.
The entire fat client cartel (not just Intel and Microsoft) should be concerned. Worried? No. Concerned? Yes. Not because they couldn't respond technically with architectures and implementations in kind. But because they can't seem to find it themselves to break with their pasts. For example, when I first saw the headline Dell offers an open source PC, I thought that maybe, just maybe, we were in for a breakthrough. But, upon further inspection, it's an operating systemless desktop for $849. While that fat client cartel heads off into bloatland trying to tell us why we need fatter PCs to run fatter operating systems and fatter applications, a real opportunity exists for Google to show us why and how less can be more. Less functionality (the 10 percent that satisfies 90 percent of the users). Less resources required locally. Fewer headaches (upgrades are easy. you never have to do them). Less cost. More money in our pockets to invest in other things.
This is not to say that Microsoft can't respond. In fact, as Google and Sun were holding their press conference, I was on the phone with Alan Yates, Microsoft's general manager of business strategy for the Redmond-based company's nformation worker group. I asked Yates for his thoughts regarding the potential impact of such a status-quo disrupting offering from Sun and Google. Yates was quick to remind me that Microsoft has delivered solutions into every environment conceivable -- from browsers (ie: OWA, MSN), to PDAs, to desktops, to servers, to mobile phones, to tablets, to a quasi-thin client environment (Windows Terminal Services) -- and that when and if the time came for Microsoft to adjust to an architectural revolution, that it wouldn't be too much trouble to adapt. I have no reason to doubt him.
There's another implication for Microsoft and its .NET knockoff of Java. I have no doubts that Google can battle Microsoft for productivity supremacy on whatever level it wants. Whether users start to use that alternative in ways that they're taking full advantage of it remain to be seen. If for example, Google delivers a real thin client-based productivity suite, you still have to ditch the fat hardware to fully appreciate that suite's advantages. Will anybody do it? Well, that depends on what takes the place of that fat hardware and who delivers it. Earlier this month, I speculated that a Google PC wasn't far off. Google could go direct to the market the way Dell has but my bet is that if such a terminal sees the light of day, Google is likely to find other channels to bring it to market. Maybe even for free. The model has already been proven in the cell phone world where handsets are given away. The numbers in terms of average revenue per user (aka "ARPU") just have to add up on some network operator's spreadsheet. Comcast already rents many of us a set-top box for a nominal fee. Why not a Google-powered terminal too? One that does exactly what all network operators want -- a way to drive their ARPU up. Technologically, Sun was the natural partner. Its president and COO Jonathan Schwartz was talking up the idea of a free computer (as opposed to one that costs $100) almost a year ago. Now, thanks to Google, that vision may be coming true.
Much to the chagrin of .NET, the net result should the various network operators become the go to market channel for Google and Sun's partnership could be a huge boost for Java as well as any other agendas that any company with its sights set on Microsoft wouldn't mind shoving through that channel (like the OpenDocument Format). What could be worse for Microsoft than a pair of committed competitors with the resources to cut Windows, Office, and .NET down at the knees (Bear in mind that resources are one thing. Execution is another.)
As you consider the possibilities, take the opportunity to reminisce about the watershed stand still agreement that was inked a little more than a year ago between Sun and Microsoft. Although the agreement had many implications (including one that put -- and still puts -- all OpenOffice.org licencees at legal risk), the one that most stands out in my mind now is the quid pro quo that was the subtext. Even though both would have legitimate claims, Microsoft won't sue Sun for patent infringement because of StarOffice and Sun won't sue Microsoft for patent infringement over .NET. Of the two kissing cousins (StarOffice and OpenOffice.org), OpenOffice.org is the one that got the cameo appearance at today's agreement. Given that that's the one of the two that's technically more at legal risk than the other, I'm still not sure what to make of the honorable mention (not to mention that Sun technically isn't the official steward of OpenOffice.org even though most of the contributors are Sun employees). The stand-still agreement, in no small way, clears the legal path for Google and other Google-like licensees (Yahoo! anyone?) to take StarOffice to market -- Java-based or not -- without fear of legal reprisal from Microsoft. As far as I know, the same cannot be said of OpenOffice.org: perhaps one reason that today's announcements were vague when it came to productivity suite futures.
See ZDNet's special report for additional news and views on the Sun-Google partnerhsip.