Sun Microsystems could emerge as the clear alternative to IBM--still the industry's finest holder of technology hands--but it must emphasize mainstream technology integration over evangelistic technology displacement.
In other words, it must start playing nice with, in particular, Microsoft and IBM. If it doesn't effect this change, Hewlett-Packard will reestablish itself as IBM's clearest alternative by the end of next year, and Sun will face an increasingly uncertain future.
Sun Microsystems evangelizes new technology as well as any other company. Since the company's inception, its executive, marketing and sales attitude has been "out with the old, in with the new," whether the new was Unix, client/server or the Internet. The problem is, Sun's market penetration means that frequently they now are the "old."
Moreover, the deep interconnectedness of today's business systems makes outright technology replacement increasingly difficult. Start-ups may be able to enjoy periods of growth by displacing old technologies, but Sun today is too big, too dependent on the health of other technology suppliers to achieve expected growth rates primarily by chatting down the competition--particularly Microsoft and IBM.
Increasingly, Sun's largest customers are also Microsoft's or IBM's largest customers. When Sun executives rant that it's "Sun against the world," they are ranting against their most profitable accounts. It used to make for good entertainment, but now it makes for lousy business relationships.
Now Sun is facing a variety of changes. First, the e-commerce-fueled stock market boom has cooled. E-business start-ups, which have been big consumers of Sun technology, are no longer in a position to spend wantonly. Moreover, the other top-tier Unix providers, particularly Hewlett-Packard and IBM, are targeting Sun, hoping to win some of that business back.
Simultaneously the Windows 2000/Intel technology is growing up. Today Unix still holds the high ground in terms of system scalability, but this week Microsoft is scheduled to announce its Data Server technology, which will add a new major player in the market. This will mean more competition for all the Unix systems providers, including Sun.
The Sun executive team may have finally realized that it needs to change Sun's approach to the market in order to maintain the company's lead and build stronger customer relationships. This has nothing to do with the strength of Sun's technology but rather is focused on how the company works with its customers. The question is whether they believe it strongly enough to really change not only their own actions but those of the entire company.
Users should trust but verify Sun's announced intentions to grow up. Meanwhile, they should look at the entire range of options for data center servers and software available on the market.
META Group analysts Peter Burris, Val Sribar and William Zachmann contributed to this article.
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