Sundown for Sun?

A brash upstart-turned-industry-stalwart has provided drama over the years, but became too tied to its technology

It looks like an old friend of mine, Sun Microsystems, may be going the way of the dinosaur. Sort of, anyway. Or maybe just transformed. We all have to wait and see.

With continued rumors floating around that IBM may buy troubled Sun (and neither company doing much to refute these rumors), the whole escapade is like wondering what will happen at the end of a suspense thriller. At this writing, everyone sits and waits for word on whether Sun will be absorbed by IBM or perhaps made into some sort of semi-independent IBM subsidiary. A third possibility is that the whole merger never comes to fruition at all.

Having covered Sun for most of the past 19 years, I have witnessed the company move from being a young, mega-success to a struggling, established giant in the computer technology realm. Sun started out competing with established giants such as IBM (how ironic is that?), Hewlett-Packard, and Digital Equipment, which itself bit the dust several years ago, as well as with Apollo Computer. Founded by four men bringing in a mixture of business sense, technological genius, and competitive aggressiveness, Sun has been the place to go for technology superstars such as Java founder James Gosling and XML co-inventor Tim Bray.

Indeed, the impressive Sun team has spanned multinational boundaries, with co-founders Scott McNealy and Bill Joy hailing from the United States, co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim from Germany, and co-founder Vinod Khosla from India. Outside of the founders' ranks, Gosling and Bray are both from Canada, and other top officials at Sun also hail from around the globe.

It hasn't always been a cordial relationship with Sun for me. The company once tried to find the source of a story I did about upcoming multiprocessor systems way back in the early 1990s. But Sun has never been boring, and it has always been a challenge covering what Sun was up to.

Over the years, I've watch Sun take on the industry in such heated matchups as the OpenLook versus OSF/Motif GUI battle on the Unix desktop and watched its Unix OS square off against Unix variants such as HP-UX and IBM AIX. On the chip side, Sun's SPARC RISC chip vied for the hearts of IT against IBM Power, HP PA-RISC, and DEC Alpha. Sun always did its own thing and was undaunted when opposed by more established companies such as it did when it faced off against OSF (the Open Software Foundation).

But it seems like Sun and the rest of the Unix vendors lost both the desktop and server battles, with Microsoft seizing the desktop with Windows while Linux and Microsoft now duel on the server side of the house. Sun has had its issues with Microsoft, pitting, for example, Java versus Windows. But the companies made nice in a 2004 interoperability agreement.

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