Sun Microsystems crossed the line from "troubled" to "doomed" yesterday.
This is sad news for the open-source community, and we need to think
about how we're going to deal with it. The most pressing questions
are, "What becomes of Java?" and, "What becomes of OpenOffice.org?"
These are questions that matter.
Sun's troubles have been mounting for a while. Founder Bill Joy's
departure was an ominous recent symbol, but the substance of their
problem is that their hugh-margin server business is being eroded from
the low end by PCs running Linux at a rate that doesn't leave it
much of a future.
Nobody should cheer the prospect of Sun's demise. Sun screwed up some
major decisions very badly, from wrecking Unix standardization efforts
in the 1980s to throttling the dream of Java ubiquity by keeping the
language proprietary. But nobody should forget that Sun was founded
by Unix hackers for Unix hackers. For most of its lifespan Sun
remained the archetype of an engineering-driven company. Sun was,
mostly, among the good guys; to hackers and geeks, disputing with Sun
was almost a family quarrel.
But inside Sun, I hear that talent is bailing out of the company
because they just don't believe the Solaris-will-prevail story
management is peddling. Most of Sun's techies are running Linux on
their PCs at home. They can see the handwriting on the wall.
In retrospect, the recent pronunciamento that Sun has no Linux
strategy was their final admission of failure. Sun can't run at the
lean profit margins that are all a commoditized Linux server market
will support, their cost structure is all wrong for it. They got
trapped in a classic innovator's dilemma and didn't cannibalize their
own business while they had the investor confidence and maneuvering
room to do so. Cuddling up to SCO didn't help, either.
And now it's too late. Moody's has just about dropped Sun into the
junk-bond basement. The stock closed at $3.31, 15% off for the day
and falling in heavy trading. The recent product announcements have
been duds, and the upcoming quarterlies are going to be a disaster.
Wall street analysts are calling for drastic job cuts and speaking the
code phrases that mean "run for the hills!" The smell of death is in
Any of Sun's people and tangible assets that don't scatter to the four
winds will probably wind up in the hands of IBM, HP, and Dell -- three
companies that have shown they do know how to play the
commodity-computing game. The SCO lawsuit probably won't be
affected. Sun was the lesser-known of of SCO's sugar daddies along
with Microsoft, but Redmond can pick up Sun's share of funding the
lawsuit out of petty cash -- and it undoubtedly will.
The real question is twofold: can OpenOffice.org survive without Sun, and
where will Java land? Probably not at Microsoft; with C# in the
picture, it is unlikely that Microsoft even wants to own Java any more.
I have to guess that IBM is the most likely to shoulder both technologies,
simply because nobody else is really positioned to do it. But that,
of course, raises other worries -- is it really good for us if IBM
has a lead position in everything?