Why Sun Microsystems can’t go it alone
Like everyone else, I have been looking what would happen if IBM were to buy Sun Microsystems. I actually thought it sounded pretty good. IBM would get hardware, some database, virtualization, cloud, and operating system software. Oh, and did I mention that they would control Java. But it sounds (at least as I am writing this) the negociations have broken down. Greed is an interesting phenomenon. Prior to overtures by IBM, Sun’s stock price was around $3.00 a share. IBM was offering as much as $9.50 a share. I actually thought that price was a bit high — but what do I know.
So, what happens now? I suspect this little drama is far from over. It is possible, if rumors are to be believed that Sun’s Chairman Scott McNealy will take over the reigns of the company once again to try to restore the company to its former glory. It has happened before. Steve Jobs returned to put Apple back on the right path. Michael Dell is trying to turn Dell into the innovator that it had been a decade ago. Will it happen this time? I think that there are some difficulties with this plan, if it is indeed true. A lot has changed since Sun declared in the 1980s that the network was the computer. Clearly, the company leadership was right. I was an observer of the pragmatic and brilliant marketing company that Sun became in the 1980s, when I worked for its competitor Apollo Computer that was later purchased by HP.
Today, the market is quite different than the market Sun and McNealy had successfully finessed. Today, the market is consolidating around either very strong global leaders such as IBM, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, etc. There is a new generation of leaders emerging that had their start in the Internet era such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook and even Twitter. So, is there room for Sun to remake itself in this new world?
I guess that my take is that it will be very hard for Sun to resurface and remake itself. Here are the three main reasons that I have doubts and why I think that shareholders and board members should sell the company to IBM.
1. Sun Microsystems will have trouble regaining hardware leadership. While it has some reasonable hardware assets, it is not big enough to take on HP or the emergence of Cisco as a hardware players. Even companies like Google and Amazon play an important role in hardware — in the commodity relm.
2. While it owns some impressive software assets that it has bought over the past decade, Sun has never learned to leverage these assets to propel it into a leadership role. It has further confused the market by opening sourcing its software. While this might be popular in a down market, it is not enough to create a repeatable revenue stream. I was watching a funny video of Steve Gilmore interviewing current CEO Jonathan Swartz (as a puppet) that I think captures part of Sun’s problems.
3. Is there a single area of technology where Sun can innovate and out shine its competitors? I imagine there might be some hidden jewels that are transformational and will turn the market upside down inside Sun — but I doubt it. I think that as Cloud Computing moves to center stage, Sun could be a player but not a leader. To be successful, Sun will have to find a way to lead in some area.
The bottom line is that I do not see a good future for Sun as an independent company. I think that the damage has been done. Not only does the company have to regain shaky customer confidence but it quickly has to start making a profit. It is not an easy climate even for the strongest companies. While it is possible that McNealy will surprise us all and turn Sun from a struggling player in a consolidating market to a leader but it is probably too late. Customers who are watching this drama unfold will have to be convinced that Sun has staying power — not just for this year for future decades. If Sun tries to maintain independent, I predict a long and difficult path that will not necessarily end in success.