Sun Needs to Accept Its Software Success

Opinion: Sun Microsystems has been working so hard to restructure its business model that it may not be prepared for success.

Having been through the dot-com bubble-wringer first, it is fitting that Sun Microsystems has worked its way back to a viable business model ahead of the competition.

In his JavaOne keynote, Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy touted Suns moves toward subscription services. As with the opening JavaOne keynote, by president and chief operating officer Jonathan Schwartz, McNealys message was about consumers and their client systems: cell phones, automobiles, digital heart-rate monitors, peer-to-peer videoconferencing and the open-sourcing of the Looking Glass 3D client user interface.

And even when Schwartz got around to talking about the server in a press conference, it was to remind us that without a client, a server is just a doorstop.

Of course, Suns "the client is back" mantra doesnt mesh with the common notions that Sun cant do software, that Sun is a hardware company and that Java failed on the client. As a counterpunch, Schwartz delivered the VB-like Creator IDE on time and virtually free; auctioned 12 fully loaded Opteron development servers on eBay, with a starting price of $1; and declared victory by claiming 65 million JVMs on the desktop.

"Show me the money!" cried the media. How about providing infrastructure for downloadable ring tones (a $3.5 billion market, according to Sun)? replied Schwartz. Or $5-a-pop horn tones? And games, where Sun provides the infrastructural playing field as game vendors battle "bored?"

But the tone McNealy kept returning to was the good old big, freakin Web tone switch. While he deferred to Schwartzs tactical reasons for open-sourcing Solaris, he said, "With the subscription model, none of this matters." In other words, users cant see under the hood and dont want to. The subtext: How we get there doesnt matter, as long as it works.

Its an elegant pitch, playing to Suns bubble-era infrastructure strengths. And with $1.95-a-gigabyte virtualized storage, served on demand, it might work. So well, in fact, that it could stimulate the rest of the market to offer similar services. But Sun remains the go-to player for telcos, which have the largest vertical market concentration of Sun infrastructure.

Similarly, the carriers see its in their interest to work with Sun to deploy Java more fully across the cornucopia of phone operating systems, enabling transactional business processes and dynamic provisioning. As the market moves into the third generation and beyond, Sun is well-positioned to provide the infrastructure small telcos cant yet host.

Eventually, the subscription models success will hit the enterprise. At that point, Sun should shrink-wrap the Web tone switch, sell it to the big dogs in the enterprise market and let their users manage the subscription model. That is, if Sun can overcome its reluctance to see itself as a successful software company.

Contributing Editor Steve Gillmor is editor of eWEEK.coms Messaging and Collaboration Center. He can be reached at

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