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Sun's growth problem may be open source, says a former Sun executive

Sun needs to learn to grow in the short and long term. How?

By all accounts, including its own, Sun Microsystems has a growth problem. Savio at IBM thinks it's best solved by selling more hardware (servers and storage). I've argued that software offers an answer.

Larry Singer, former vice president of Global Information Systems Strategy at Sun, suggested that an overemphasis on open source is not the right answer:

"The hard part is we were spending all of our time and attention inside [Sun] on things that were important from an intellectual standpoint, important from an innovative standpoint [but it was] hard to understand how they were going to drive revenue for the company," said Singer.

He added he understood that Sun could lure new customers into buying its systems by extending Solaris via open source. But the return on investment from this effort could take 10 to 12 years, he said. "There's not going to be a company in 10, 12 years unless we get our revenues up in two years," he said. The company needed to focus on differentiation in core products, including workstations, servers and storage devices, to satisfy the big companies that constitute its customer base, Singer said.

"The emphasis of the company was open-sourcing everything," instead of focusing on revenues, said Singer.

Point well taken. Open source is no panacea for any company. At worst, it's an excuse for doing real product development. At best, it's an exceptional companion to product development and distribution. At Sun, it seems that open source offers it a way to be relevant to the market again. This strategy is working, though slowly.

To Larry, I'd argue that there's no such thing as an immediate turnaround. I come from Novell. I've watched Novell make a turnaround over a period of four to five years. It simply doesn't happen overnight but yes, open source is an important way to help drive that change.

Sun may be focusing too much on the near-term sex appeal of open source. But there is no question that long term it's the right way to go. Just ask every enterprise software company on the planet - every single one of them is trying to figure out how to embrace open source without getting pulverized by it.

Still, there is the short term. How does Sun grow in the short term?