Sun's burning questions

Nobody's asking if he jumped or was he pushed, but McNealy's departure from the helm leaves Sun ready to take some tough decisions

The Sun is a main sequence star about half way through its life. Now past its early role at the centre of the solar's systems most anarchistic yet creative period, the Sun has become a focus of stability and energy. Towards the end of its life, astronomers predict, it will throw off great gobs of noisy gas, ridding itself of its past before settling down to a dark, cold and unproductive old age.

Scott McNealy may have a great gob, but it's unfair to characterise him as mere noisy gas. Yet he has been expelled from his home at the heart of the Sun he helped to create, leaving behind the less pyrotechnic Jonathan Schwartz to look after the next stage. This stellar evolution is courtesy of the cosmic forces of Wall Street, prodded beyond endurance by Sun's spotty profits: things must change. Comet Schwartz could signal the beginning of the end or the start of a new golden age.

Sun desperately needs a new focus. McNealy's reign was marked by good ideas frequently left to languish as the next big thing came along. In part, that was due to Sun finding and exploiting new niches, yet finding itself left behind as they became commoditised. Workstations, networks, servers and processors are all important and profitable ideas that owe a lot to Sun. Sun has never quite reclaimed those debts, but it's time to move on.

Now we have grids, open source, services and management — all ideas which are ripening nicely into ROI and in which Sun has a strong stake. With Java and Open Solaris, it has the toolset with which to integrate these ideas into strong enterprise offerings. It also has the trust and enthusiasm of a significant developer community: it can and should listen to them as it contemplates the future of its attitude to openness.

Whether Sun has the sales acumen to persuade companies that it can deliver better answers than the opposition is another matter. It's also a good question whether it can change its self-image as a hardware innovator at a time when such things matter ever less.

Schwartz has a reputation for not dodging the hard questions. Fortunately, Sun has plenty of answers: the trick will be to pick the best and stick with them. With clarity and stability, Sun can shine again — and that will be good for everyone in its path.