Sun Microsystems: The Innovator's Dilemma

Although Sun Microsystems has been one of the most innovative companies in the computing business, it has had a hard time capitalizing on its innovations. Now, with a rejuvenated development platform in NetBeans and a new rich Internet application platform in JavaFX about to ship, what will Sun find these technologies mean for its relationship with developers?

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.