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Tech Industry

My reaction to Sun being bought? Profound sadness

Analyst Jon Oltsik reflects on what he'll miss about Sun as a standalone company and what it represented--the last vestige of the golden age of the tech industry.

By now we've all read hundreds of opinions on why Oracle bought Sun Microsystems and whether this is a good or bad decision. I, too, have an opinion, but for once I'm keeping quiet. Rather, I want to reflect on the sadness I feel as Sun becomes an acquired memory like other pioneering tech companies have.

When I started in the tech business over 20 years ago, it was extremely young and exciting. If you went for a drink after work, you would find a saloon full of folks from Digital Equipment Corp., Data General, EMC, Lotus, McCormick & Dodge, and Prime Computer all out doing the same. Much to IBM's chagrin, high tech had been taken over by a bunch of 20 and 30 year olds in Boston and San Jose, Calif., who were going to change the world.

No company represented this sense of anti-establishment more than Sun. When the industry tried to outflank Sun by forming a Unix consortium called the Open Software Federation, Sun sat on the sidelines and let OSF die on its own. When IBM was struggling in the early 1990s, Sun pushed hard and established a base on Wall Street for Unix servers running Sybase. When Hewlett-Packard fell on tough times, Sun was relentless in its criticism and competitive programs. And who can forget some of Scott McNealy's comments about Windows and Microsoft: "Microsoft is now talking about the digital nervous system. I guess I would be nervous if my system was built on their technology." Groucho Marx couldn't have come up with stuff like this.

Sun's "the network is the computer" was totally accurate and prescient. Sun gave us NFS (network file system), Java, and really helped push the establishment of IP. These contributions can't be underestimated. Unfortunately, Sun was also unwilling to change with the times. Despite McNealy's humor, his comments now read a lot like those of another brilliant but inflexible leader, Ken Olsen of once-mighty Digital.

I'll miss Sun's irreverence, its optimism, and its innovative spirit, but most of all I'll miss what Sun represented, the last vestige of the golden age of the tech industry. Unlike those heady days in Boston back in the 1980s, our industry is now mature with only a few tech giants left. Cisco Systems is now building its own servers and Oracle is a hardware company. I guess we did change the world to some extent, just not the way we thought we would.