The downfall of Sun Microsystems

Dot-com bust, failure to embrace x86 processors ended Sun’s life as an independent company, analysts say

Oracle's surprising US$7.4 billion deal to purchase Sun this week gives Larry Ellison and crew a big stake in the hardware market as well as control over Java and other well-known open source technologies. But it also spells the end of an independent Sun Microsystems, one of Silicon Valley's most prominent companies.

How did it all come to this for Sun, often regarded as one of IT's great innovators during its 27-year lifespan? The dot-com crash at the start of this decade is frequently cited as the beginning of the end for Sun, and for good reason. Acquisition missteps and a failure to monetize key products such as Java also hastened Sun's descent.

"The dot-com bust hurt everybody but it's arguable that Sun was hurt most of all because it had profited so much in the run up to the boom in the first place, and hadn't grown its business out as deeply as IBM and some others had," says Pund-IT analyst Charles King.

Sun's Sparc servers with the Solaris operating system were snatched up by dot-com start-ups because of their stability and flexibility in deploying various applications at affordable prices, King says.

"In the months following the bust, there was a huge amount of Sun product that was out on the street and it precluded the need for people to upgrade or purchase new equipment," King says.

Sun prized its Sparc architecture so much that it missed the industry-wide transition to x86 processors, analysts say. Sun actually did sell x86-based systems in the 1980s, but concentrated its efforts on Sparc for most of the 90s. In King's view, Sun treated x86 systems as nice toys, but not platforms that could be used to power a serious corporate data center. Sun did increase its presence in the x86 market in the years following the dot-com bust with AMD- and Intel-based servers, but it seems to have been too little, too late.

The biggest reason for Sun's downfall is "the inability to recognize the x86 open architecture, as opposed to what they were selling with the Sparc processors," says Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Brian Babineau.

Babineau also faults Sun for pursuing a "non-capitalistic strategy" by emphasizing open source, yet failing to monetize key products such as Java.

King and Babineau both point to failed acquisitions. King notes Sun's $2 billion purchase of Cobalt Networks, a server appliance vendor that was gobbled up by Sun in 2000 but never produced any real dividends for its owner.

Sun has attempted to compete in many different hardware and software markets, but is too often in third or fourth place, Babineau says. Sun bought MySQL for $1 billion in 2008, for example, challenging the database market where Oracle was already king. Sun also executed poorly in the storage market after purchasing the vendor StorageTek for $4.1 billion in 2005, Babineau says.

Join the PC World newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags x86 server marketOracle-Sun mergerIBMsolarisSun MicrosystemsjavaOraclelarry ellison

Our Back to Business guide highlights the best products for you to boost your productivity at home, on the road, at the office, or in the classroom.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jon Brodkin

Network World
Show Comments

Essentials

Lexar® JumpDrive® S57 USB 3.0 flash drive

Learn more >

Microsoft L5V-00027 Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard Desktop

Learn more >

Mobile

Lexar® JumpDrive® S45 USB 3.0 flash drive 

Learn more >

Exec

Lexar® JumpDrive® C20c USB Type-C flash drive 

Learn more >

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 Noise Cancelling Headphones

Learn more >

HD Pan/Tilt Wi-Fi Camera with Night Vision NC450

Learn more >

Lexar® Professional 1800x microSDHC™/microSDXC™ UHS-II cards 

Learn more >

Budget

Back To Business Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest News Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Azadeh Williams

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

A smarter way to print for busy small business owners, combining speedy printing with scanning and copying, making it easier to produce high quality documents and images at a touch of a button.

Andrew Grant

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

I've had a multifunction printer in the office going on 10 years now. It was a neat bit of kit back in the day -- print, copy, scan, fax -- when printing over WiFi felt a bit like magic. It’s seen better days though and an upgrade’s well overdue. This HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 looks like it ticks all the same boxes: print, copy, scan, and fax. (Really? Does anyone fax anything any more? I guess it's good to know the facility’s there, just in case.) Printing over WiFi is more-or- less standard these days.

Ed Dawson

HP OfficeJet Pro 8730

As a freelance writer who is always on the go, I like my technology to be both efficient and effective so I can do my job well. The HP OfficeJet Pro 8730 Inkjet Printer ticks all the boxes in terms of form factor, performance and user interface.

Michael Hargreaves

Windows 10 for Business / Dell XPS 13

I’d happily recommend this touchscreen laptop and Windows 10 as a great way to get serious work done at a desk or on the road.

Aysha Strobbe

Windows 10 / HP Spectre x360

Ultimately, I think the Windows 10 environment is excellent for me as it caters for so many different uses. The inclusion of the Xbox app is also great for when you need some downtime too!

Mark Escubio

Windows 10 / Lenovo Yoga 910

For me, the Xbox Play Anywhere is a great new feature as it allows you to play your current Xbox games with higher resolutions and better graphics without forking out extra cash for another copy. Although available titles are still scarce, but I’m sure it will grow in time.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?