Sun Microsystems is a funny company. It jumped directly from hyperactive adolescence to midlife crisis, complete with ponytail. Ever since the dot-com crash decimated its free-spending customer base, the company’s been on a quest to find itself – and give a jolt to its flat-lining stock price. That quest, dutifully chronicled in the blog of company president Jonathan Schwartz, has looked increasingly desperate of late, as Sun has bounced between marketing pitches like Ricochet Rabbit on a meth jag. One minute it’s the Anti-Dell, then it’s the Leader in Responsible Computing, then it’s the Fastest Chip on Earth company, then it’s the Volume Is Everything company, then it’s the Free Software company, then it’s "The Dot in Web 2.0," then it's challenging Steve Jobs to a “pod duel” – and that’s just in the last two months.
Nick then goes on to say that the "sad thing about Sun's lack of discipline is that it distracts from the company's powerful message about the computer industry’s very real energy crisis." He thinks that Sun has an opportunity "blaze a trail toward a whole new model of more-efficient business computing," but advises that Sun has to "adopt a single, coherent market positioning and stick to it with relentless, unwavering discipline. Blogging is not a strategy."
Nick makes a good point about Sun's flurry of press releases and marketing messages, flip flopping on who is friend and foe and the constant state of reinvention as the company tries to regain sales momemtum and the mantle of technology leadership. The company produces a lot of rhetoric and soundbytes that we in the press rarely fail to recite. It's a company that loves to play with words (as Nick does), and can't resist making bold statements.
On the other hand, Sun is one of the few mainstream companies that demonstrates any intellectual grit and is willing to bet its future on open source and its own technology innovations, such as the new energy efficient UltraSparc T1 systems.
Despite the forays into messaging like "powering the Participation Age" or "Sharing," Sun has one basic message: The Network is the Computer. It has held up well, and is more than a marketing slogan. Sun's business is still focused on delivering infrastructure that powers the network, and in the Internet era the opportunity is far greater. The question is whether Sun can capitalize on the opportunity, trailing IBM and HP in server sales by a wide margin, and a few percentage points behind Dell in the latest surveys.
Sun is in the fight of its life and waging war on several fronts--end-to-end software stacks, Java vs. .Net, servers. The company believes that it has to make lots of noise and rattle cages to get the attention of enterprise buyers (and the press) in the wake of Microsoft, IBM's steady On Demand initiative, HP's rather vapid Adaptive Enterprise and the Dell/Intel machine.
Sun's blogging, evangelism, press campaigns and trash talking are aimed at keeping the conversation alive and Sun in the middle of it. It's part of an effort to re-educate the CIOs of the planet on the misery of continuing to plow money into the previous generation of technology and delivery models.
In his latest post, Sun President and COO Jonathan Schwartz, offers another articulation of Sun's mission:
To steal a quote, no one at Sun wants us to be just a great company with great technology. We also want Sun to be a good company - we believe we can change the planet. And we believe decision makers across the world, from voters to developers, legislators to CFO's are beginning to say, "something has to change." May we be the first among many, to respond...
More aspirational rhetoric, which is one of the main outputs of corporate blogs, but the "something" in Schwartz's statement does refer to Nick's notion of Sun blazing "a trail toward a whole new model of more-efficient business computing." Whether Sun needs a overarching marketing message beyond its long-standing 'Network in the Computer' I'll leave to the marketing experts. For the near term, Sun just needs to convince lots more customers that it's rhetoric is righteous and that it's technology and business model are ahead of the competition and sustainable.