So last week former Sun president and now Google's adult supervisor Eric Schmidt got on a podium with Sun's Scott McNealy and current president Jonathan Schwartz to announce what? Apparently nothing.
Except, they did announce something: the beginning of a long term relationship in which Google will use Sun technology and Sun will help Google morph itself from search engine to a kind of self aware community glue.
I think the community idea is vaguely modelled on what some people, in the nineties, thought AOL could become in the internet age - a service provider whose users come to it for value, not savings, and whose costs are largely met by third parties looking for access to that community. Thus both the Java toolbar and Google's virtual re-incarnation of the downloadable, browser based, fat client function could be seen as steps on the growth path from gmail to gnotepad to goffice.
I don't think, however, that this kind of retreading of old ideas would have achieved traction with the top people at either company if they hadn't also seen an opportunity to address another set of issues entirely.
Those issues involve measuring advertising effectiveness. Right now Google pays its partners, and collects its advertising fees, largely on an unaudited basis simply because there is no effective audit technology available. Don't misunderstand, there are lots workarounds and patches -everything from panel studies to traditional circulation audits - but none of these really let anyone say with confidence how many people read each ad, for how long, or with what effect on their behavior.
Right now, for example, Google can say with precision how many people click on each ad popped up by the their search and placement engine, while some advertisers are switching to sales commissions instead of page placement as the basis for payments. Nobody knows, however, how many of the people who buy from an advertiser's real or virtual store were previously exposed to ads carried by Google or one of its partner sites.
Data collected by a Googlebot that initially sniffed through cache and proxy server logs and later graduated to collecting page read and duration data from PC browser logs could address this. AOL and MSN are positioned to do this today but Yahoo and Google face both US legal and practical issues requiring them to first build more dependent communities. Luckily for Google, it may have time to do this - AOL is management bound while both MSN and Yahoo are constrained by their communities in ways Google is not.
Thus the outing of the Google/Sun relationship we saw last week may be the first step in the business process change needed to make this happen - to build the community and embed the technology enabling accurate reader response reporting on advertising. If so, it would cement Google's leadership position in the industry and give Sun's technology a real chance to shine.
There are other aspects to the Sun/Google relationship, of course. For example, Google has long been rumored to have been the primary test site for the forthcoming Niagara technologies and may appear at the announcement to talk about both the power savings and reliability improvements associated with Solaris 10 on CMT hardware. More speculatively, Sun has long tried, without success, to interest a major Telco/ISP in creating a home Sun Ray user community -something Google may now want to do as it struggles to capitalize on the cash and goodwill it has achieved so far.
So why did they call a press conference and announce almost nothing? My guess is that this was driven by a sense of history - so that later generations could point to a single, precisely dated, event as the point after which web based advertising became auditable, and Google became the AOL Time Warner thought it was buying.