Google and Sun: Same vision, different results

These two companies shared a similar understanding of network-based computing, with distinctly different results. Why?

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is betting on a mobile, cloud-based future and is winning.

Former Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz bet big on that same future...with dramatically different results.

Google's vision: no secret to Sun.
What is the defining difference between these two executives and their companies?

It's easy to suggest that the answer must be because Google employees are simply smarter than their counterparts at Sun, or that Schmidt is a rock-star CEO while Schwartz was not. But history belies such facile reasoning.

For one thing, there's no shortage of Sun employees at Google, including, most recently and notably, Tim Bray, who is now a developer advocate focused on Android.

Schmidt, himself, is a product of Sun, having served as its CTO from 1994 until 1997. Sun in those days was at the top of its game, but Schmidt left Sun to join Novell...and failed.

Of course, anyone in that position would have failed. Novell was something of a lost cause.

Can the same be said of Sun? Schwartz gets a lot of criticism for his time at Sun, but could anyone else have done better? Perhaps. But significantly better?

I doubt it.

It's not as if Schwartz didn't have the winning vision for the software industry: he largely shared Schmidt's/Google's vision of a mobile future with the cloud/Internet connecting all of the nodes.

Vision, however, is nothing without execution, and execution is accelerated or hampered by a company's legacy. For Sun, this was exacerbated by its failure to ride the x86+Linux train.

But even a successful shift to x86 probably wouldn't have saved Sun.

After all, it's hard to realize a "network is the computer" future when you're stuck selling the hardware to power that network, rather than profiting from the software running atop the network, as Google does.

Software can achieve Internet scale in a way that hardware simply can't.

Arguably, Google is what Sun's intelligentsia desperately wanted Sun to be, but couldn't due to Sun's bulky hardware business. Google grew up on the Web, a software services giant. Sun, by contrast, sold the infrastructure for the Web and never could get beyond the fetters this approach created.

That's why the two CEOs can give essentially the same response to questions about the future of computing...but vary wildly in the results. Here's what Schmidt said just this week:

Hopefully someone else will be making the devices, we do the software. What's important now is to get the mobile architecture right. Because mobility will be the way you will provision in the future. Fast forward 5-10 years. The answer should always be mobile first. You want to have the best app on mobile....The promise of Chrome and Chrome OS is that the devices you give to employees will have 2-second boot time, will be disposable, low price.

Now compare this to Schwartz in 2005, speaking of the same shift to mobile phones:

The majority of the world will first experience the Internet through their handset. Our collective generation believes the desktop PC is the most important thing to give to people. I don't buy that. The most important thing to give is access to the Internet [in developing nations].

Two peas in a pod...at least in terms of vision.

In the area of a company's legacy in accelerating or inhibiting that vision, however, only one of those CEOs was free to execute on that vision.

Hint: it's the one who still has his job.