Steve Malone: "IT's Like This..."

Everyone likes an underdog, but in the case of Sun V Microsoft, Mr Malone reckons we shouldn't get too carried away...

I'm sure, you will have been agog reading the legal reports that have been coming across from the US in the last week. Pardon? No, not those reports, I'm talking about Sun squaring up to Microsoft in the battle over whether Microsoft deliberately intended to create a Windows specific version of Java.

Of course, the great majority of right-thinking people will doubtless be behind Sun in this particular legalfest. After all, it looks as though the riddle of "When is a browser not a browser? When it's Windows 98" has run into the sand despite Judge Penfold's efforts to keep it moving. Therefore Sun is looking like the best candidate around at the moment to halt the Redmond Roller. After all, Sun clearly has the best interests of the users at heart in the philosophy of write once run anywhere. Doesn't it?

I'll leave the legal niceties for another column. But it is worth saying again that Sun is not in the business of being the consumer's champion. It is in the business of making money. The principal reason it has gone to court to prevent Microsoft from tinkering around with Java - and the chances are that MS-Java would run faster on Windows than Sun's Native Java - is that it doesn't want Microsoft running away with what Sun sees as a lucrative revenue stream for decades to come.

Sun's track record on pricing where it holds a near monopoly doesn't bear too much scrutiny. Let's, for example, look at its hardware pricing. First let me declare an interest. We at ZDNet UK like Sun hardware. Our web server runs on Sun hardware, our Ad Server runs on Sun hardware and we've recently bought a third server for some forthcoming e-commerce initiatives we have planned. It's efficient, we've hardly ever had any problems with it and to date, the Solaris/Apache combination we use has handled everything we've thrown at it smoothly delivering over three million pages a month to the world.

But that smoothness comes at a price. Sun puts a big markup on kit which in the PC market would be half the price or even lower. On the face of it, prices are not too out of kilter. A low end Ultra 5 workstation with 64Mb of RAM and a 4.2Gbyte drive costs around £1950. OK, shop around and that's twice the price of an equivalent PC. You might shrug and say, well if you need a Unix workstation, that's what you pay. Where Sun really turns the screw is on 'add-ons'. How about £1333 for 256Mb of RAM which is at least four times what you'd pay for equivalent PC memory or try £250 for a SCSI cable, people this is expensive copper we are talking here...I could go on.

You might say that you can buy many of these bits and bobs from third party vendors although suggesting this to your Sun hardware vendor draws a sharp intake of breath and some sales patter along the lines of "I wouldn't do that if I were you Squire..." They will then regale you with stories of Sun engineers turning up to fix a fault, removing any non-Sun kit then announcing "it's working now Guv". I wouldn't suggest that such stories are necessarily true, but when it comes to FUD, Sun Microsystems can mix it with the best of Microsoft and IBM.

To be fair, I should point out that a few years ago, Sun did licence other hardware vendors to produce cheaper Sun compatible kit in order to develop a thriving 'compatible' market like the one that has served the PC so well. But at the same time, like Apple's control of its 'compatible' manufacturers, by controlling key bits of the technology, in this case the SPARC processors and Solaris, Sun was able to keep its 'competitors' on a short leash. They could compete, but not too much. The trouble is, competition like exercise only works when it hurts. The compatible vendors couldn't undercut too much on price and slowly they have folded.

I repeat Sun Microsystems is a capitalist company in a market driven economy. Asking it to cut prices when it doesn't need to or encouraging competitors to eat into its profit margins is like asking a tiger to go veggie. If Sun manages to retain control of Java asking the company to maintain the language for the prime benefit of users and developers, is against its nature. Although the emerging Internet market has made Sun look like a cool company. This despite the fact that it operates in the rarefied account management space of the IBMs and Digitals of this world. At least Microsoft knows what competition is (even if it has to scour its memory sometimes).

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