Sun Microsystems: The Innovator's Dilemma

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2008-11-24

Sun Microsystems: The Innovator's Dilemma

Word of Sun Microsystems' plans to cut as many as 6,000 workers signified the dire state of the economy. It also signified that Sun, a company with a history of innovative thinkers, just never seemed to be able to fully capitalize on its innovations.

And I'm not just talking about Java, but the overall theme of the company. "The network is the computer." That was Sun's tag line a long time ago, and it's really just starting to be realized now. Sun certainly did gain from that, but did it gain as much as a more aggressive company might have? Sun has a reputation for being laid-back.

For instance, there is Java itself. You could argue that IBM has made more money off of Java than Sun has.

When it came out in 1995, Java was an amazing invention that not only advanced programming languages, but its "write once, run anywhere" promise gave developers an alternative to the closed environment presented by Microsoft. A key characteristic of Java is portability. Java code is compiled not to machine code, but to Java bytecode that is then interpreted by a JVM (Java virtual machine) specific to the platform the application is running on.

The invention of Java was so innovative that a threatened Microsoft immediately attempted to co-opt it-well, to dilute it. Sun fought back and spurred lawsuits and campaigns against Microsoft. But it seems the company somehow lost focus there.

And it was perhaps that-then-Sun leader Scott McNealy's vendetta against Microsoft-more than the dot-com bust that caused the true downturn for Sun. Technoland history is littered with the names of company leaders that met their downfall trying to go head-to-head with Microsoft in an established market ... Philippe Kahn of Borland Software, Ray Noorda of Novell and Jim Manzi of Lotus Development, to name a few.

However, showing its foresight, Sun and its new leader, Jonathan Schwartz, saw the value of open source. Open source was to be Sun's savior. Jury's still out.

Sun Innovation and NetBeans 6.5


What can Sun do? Is the company just cursed? Some have said the problem has been leadership on the business side of the house. But I don't know that you can say that. Sun has had solid leaders in both technology and business.

Even a short list of Sun leaders past and present represents a Who's Who of the industry. In addition to McNealy and Schwartz, there is Eric Schmidt, now CEO of Google, formerly Sun's CTO; Ed Zander, former COO and president of Sun who went on to be CEO and chairman of Motorola; Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun and software brainiac; James Gosling, creator of Java; Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun and creator of the workstation; and Greg Papadopoulos, CTO and executive vice president of research and development at Sun.

And if you look at working groups in any of the major standards bodies-World Wide Web Consortium, OASIS and IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), among others-you'll see Sun technologists leading and staffing many of the more innovative projects.

Click here to read about Sun's upgraded high-performance computing clustered storage packages. 

Meanwhile, the company continues to innovate in its own work. Sun recently announced Version 6.5 of its NetBeans open-source IDE (integrated development environment).

NetBeans 6.5 provides an intuitive and feature-rich IDE for PHP and increased support for Web and Java software development, said David Folk, group manager of Developer Tools at Sun. NetBeans 6.5 will include fully localized versions of simplified Chinese, Japanese and Brazilian Portuguese, Folk said. In addition, Sun released an early access version for Python applications, he said. Early access includes an editor, debugger and choice of Python run-times.

Folk also said NetBeans 6.5 includes an editor for JavaScript development, including CSS/HTML code completion and the ability to debug client-side JavaScript code within both Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers. The new version of NetBeans also features enhanced support for Spring, Hibernate, JSP (JavaServer Pages) and Java Persistence API. There also is support for Groovy and Grails in the editor and enhanced support for the Ruby language.

However, "Java developers are still very important to us," Folk said. NetBeans 6.5 features multithreaded debugging for Java technologies.

"In the development arena, mixed language programming is becoming the norm," Allan Davis, lead developer of nbPython, said in a statement. "We needed our tools to be in one place; by adding the early access version of Python to the NetBeans project, we can accomplish our development in a more productive manner. Working with Sun on this project has been an incredible experience for me. The engineers are top-notch and the NetBeans community has been a blessing and an inspiration to get the project to this point. I am glad to be a part of such a great product."

JavaFX and Rich Internet Applications


Meanwhile, Sun is working on innovation in a relatively new area for the company-the RIA (rich Internet application) area. With JavaFX, Sun is introducing a new technology based on the Java platform, designed to enable consistent user experiences on desktop, mobile, TV and other consumer platforms.

At the recent Adobe Max conference, Param Singh, senior director of Java marketing at Sun, gave me a demo of JavaFX, which is in its final stages of development.

Singh demonstrated that JavaFX features plug-ins for both NetBeans and Eclipse in addition to the JavaFX SDK (software development kit). JavaFX allows users to import graphical assets and media from other applications such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Singh showed how the JavaFX technology helps to make for smooth designer-developer workflow, as when a designer makes a change to a design, the changes show up in the IDE so that the developer is aware of it.

"JavaFX provides the presentation layer on top of Java," Singh said. In addition to a production suite for designers and developers, "We're committed to deliver a mobile emulator," he said. Moreover, Singh said, "for Java developers that are looking at [Adobe] Flex as a means of developing controls, they now have a choice with JavaFX."

So Sun continues to innovate; that's never been a problem for the company.

Indeed, in a conversation at Adobe Max with John Loiacono, senior vice president of Adobe's Creative Solutions Business Unit, I joked about the use of the term "Flash Platform" as being a new thrust for Adobe that signified the direction of the company. And I asked JohnnyL, who used to be a bigwig in Sun's software unit, if Adobe was going to follow the lead of his old employer and change its stock ticker symbol from "ADBE" to "FLSH"-like Sun did when it changed its ticker from "SUNW" to "JAVA" to indicate the company's relationship to the ubiquitous Java platform.

Loiacono chuckled, but quickly got serious and said, "There's no shortage of innovation at Sun. Jonathan [Schwartz] has a difficult job, and that move was just one of many he has made" to ensure that Sun will keep moving ahead.

Despite its struggles, Sun continues to garner major attention in the industry. What do you think Sun ought to do to capitalize on its innovations?

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