Sun Set?

Sun has been a company in trouble for years now. Until recently, I was never really worried about it going under. Now, I'm worried.

I have a love/hate relationship with Sun. I love many of their products like the SPARC workstations and much of the goodness in first the SunOS and now Solaris/OpenSolaris operating systems. I hate the results of their internal civil wars, which have made Sun shift like a snake in desert noon-day light from hardware to software company and from proprietary to open-source company.

I felt like I never knew which Sun I'd be meeting: the good Sun, the one that was open-standard and open-source friendly, or the bad Sun, the company that wanted iron-control over every product that it ever touched. I wasn't the only one who was confused by Sun. With every switch back and forth it seemed to me that they lost ground.

The classic example of this was when Sun spent a cool $2-billion to buy Cobalt Networks in late 2000 as the company's passport into the world of low-end Linux servers. A mere three-years later Sun had dumped Cobalt. It was a dead loss.

This split personality problem would continue to show up with Sun's support of SCO and its back and forth approach to open-sourcing first Java and then OpenSolaris.

Once founding CEO Scott McNealy retired and Jonathan Schwartz took the reins in August 2006, I thought Sun was finally settled on a course: the company would be an open-source software company with just enough of a hand in the hardware business to continue to be a player on high-end servers. By focusing on complete open system solutions - software, hardware, services and networks - I thought Sun had a formula that would work.

Unfortunately, while Sun may finally have a steady course, it may have come too late. While the company said things had turned out well in the last quarter, which lead to the company's stock getting a brief boost, reality began to sink in as analysts took a closer look at what Sun had actually said. Their conclusions? Sun actually had a flop of a quarter.

The week before Sun had announced that it would be firing about 1,000 workers, or about 8% of its total work force. It could be more; I've heard rumors of up to 2,500 staffers getting laid off.

The company had also hoped to settle a potentially painful patent dispute with NetApps over its ZFS file system. No such luck. The NetApp case seems to be on its way to litigation. Win, lose, or draw, the resulting court case will be expensive.

That sort of sums up Sun's business in a nutshell. No matter what Sun does, Sun keeps shedding customers. Many of them are being lost to Linux and Sun's least favorite partner Red Hat. OpenSolaris, sorry OS fans, really isn't catching on. In any case, it has a nasty built-in legal time bomb hidden inside it: Novell owns its Unix IP (intellectual property) heart.

On the other hand, I really had thought that Sun adding MySQL to Java and Solaris was a brilliant move. I still do.

I just hope that Sun will survive long enough to make the most of its MySQL acquisition and its now almost two-year old change in course. Unfortunately, this is not an economy that's kind to any company in trouble. Here's hoping that Sun makes it, but, as I said at the start, "I'm worried."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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