Sun Microsystems: the Dot in Web 2.0?

I have a lot of time for Sun. I have no idea why, but it always seemed to me that much of what the company stood for – like the ‘Write Once Run Anywhere’ Java programming language – challenged the status quo in the technology industry and in so doing solved a lot of the challenges faced in enterprise IT.

I’ve met my fair share of CIOs who have argued that in recent years their hardware has been overpriced and not even that reliable in comparison to the latest Wintel servers, but I am sure there are just as many CIOs who think the exact opposite. Their more recent hardware launches have had their fair share of good reviews, too.

I have watched as the company has continued to lose money despite the protestations of many shareholders and analysts, not least Merill Lynch analyst Steve Milunovich who back in October 2003 wrote an open letter to then CEO Scott McNealy urging him to cut costs and refocus. Its latest results suggest it has not done enough so far.

To this day, I am hopeful that under the gaze of its new CEO Jonathan Schwartz it can turn itself around, pare down its activities to what it knows best and what is actually profitable, and once again become one of the most influential technology vendors.

But I have my doubts. I’m most worried about Schwartz’s apparent obsession with everything ‘Web 2.0’. His latest blog entry, for instance, goes so far as to suggest that the company could even adopt the tagline “We’re the Dot in 2.0”, parodying the company’s old tagline, “We’re the Dot in Dot.Com”.

This worries me because it was an over-reliance on dot-com companies that landed Sun in hot water when the dot-com bubble burst. While Schwartz’s latest blog talks about strong demand for its computer systems business, and storage, and even embedded Java platform deals, it’s not ‘Web 2.0’ that drives Sun’s revenue and profitability, and Schwartz knows it.

What he appears to be doing is hoping that the ‘cool’ factor of ‘Web 2.0’ will some how rub off on Sun, making it more attractive to investors and customers.

It’s like Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream adopting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) logo in their latest ice cream marketing. It’s disingenuous. In B&J’s case it’s a big company still passing itself off as the kooky cottage industry that ‘thinks just like you do in a slightly left-of-centre kind of way.’

But it seems to me that there is a risk of Sun alienating its core audience of IT purchasers. Besides, the whole ‘Web 2.0’ moniker is a term so loaded with hype and so ill-defined just yet that saying “We’re the Dot in 2.0” is like saying “We’re the Dot in I-Don’t-Dot-Know-Dot-What.”

Sun makes money (though not substantial profit just yet) from systems and systems software. I think they should leave the Web 2.0 marketing to the new kids on the block, and strive instead to be a damned good, damned profitable systems and systems software vendor. No more, and no less. And most definitely, no unwarranted Web 2.0 marketing.

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