Tuesday's alliance between Google and Sun Microsystems is a significant development for both companies and for the computing industry.
But there's a big difference in scope between the grand "multiyear, strategic agreement" the companies heralded at a press conference Tuesday and the much narrower particulars they actually announced. To make matters more confusing, some of the technology involved is complex, and executives hinted at other elements of cooperation beyond what was in the press release.
What specific move did Sun and Google announce Tuesday?
Within 30 days, Sun will begin distributing the Google Toolbar with its Java software when people download the latter from Sun's Web site. Sun will get "direct monetary value" from the distribution deal, said John Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president for software. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that what separates the Toolbar distribution deal from others the company has is the "vastness" of it. Sun CEO Scott McNealy said the Java software is downloaded 20 million times per month.
The Google Toolbar provides a quick link from Web browsers to Google's search engine and other features. Sun's Java provides a software foundation that lets a program run on different types of personal computers.
Google also committed to buying more Sun servers, though Schmidt refused to detail how many or what type. That's significant, given the search giant's prestige as an Internet company and its reliance so far on machines it has built itself.
That sounds like a tactical agreement, not a strategic agreement. Is there more?
Sun and Google mostly remained mum, but several executives mentioned other areas of partnership:
• Google, already a member of the Java Community Process steering committee, will become more active.
• Sun and Google will engage in joint marketing activities as well as joint research and development.
• Pending agreement of project programmers, Sun will add a Google search bar to OpenOffice.org, an office software suite Sun turned into open-source software in 2000.
• Google will help Sun with OpenSolaris, its open-source version of the Solaris operating system.
• Sun will continue to buy ads through Google. And Google will help distribute OpenOffice.
Solaris, OpenOffice, Java, open-source software--is there anything in the partnership that isn't aimed directly at Microsoft?
Not really. Java competes with Microsoft's .Net and Windows, OpenOffice competes with Microsoft Office, Solaris competes with Windows, and the Google Toolbar provides access to Google online services that compete with Microsoft's MSN.
Schmidt ducked discussions of Microsoft competition, but Sun President Jonathan Schwartz didn't: "Do you see Google joining forces with Microsoft on the evolution of .Net? Last I checked, no," Schwartz said in an interview. And he said that both companies are pushing freely downloadable open-source software in part because "both of us want to ensure it does not cost you $500 to get access to the Internet."
But didn't Sun bury the hatchet with Microsoft last year? Aren't they now working together?
Indeed, McNealy and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer signed an agreement in April 2004 that settled Sun's Java-related antitrust lawsuit, shared patents and led to promises of software interoperability. That agreement was the result of customer demands, the companies took pains to emphasize: Many objected to technology from two major suppliers that couldn't get along. In contrast, Google and Sun are in many ways two sides of the same coin, and Tuesday's deal with Google began with conversations with the companies' engineers.
The difference is illustrated in how McNealy described the two deals. Regarding Google, he said: "I think it's a very natural partnership here. It shouldn't surprise people that we're back on stage." As for Microsoft, he said: "I think it was a required partnership, and the customers wanted it. I got hammered until we announced that."
Is there anything to this deal that's more revolutionary than developing, distributing and promoting each other's software?
Perhaps, but executives were reluctant to say much about the possibilities to rework how people use computing services. Even though Sun and Google have plenty of software that runs on personal computers, the companies also are working in their own way to build a world of rich computing services available on the Internet. The boundaries between PC software and network-based computing services are blurring, Schmidt said, but he offered no details about what that means. McNealy was more sweeping, but equally short on specifics: "We're working on bringing this network-is-the-computer, Net services environment."
But some see Tuesday's announcement as evidence that a network-centric vision of the future is coming. "For many years, Scott McNealy...talked about the network replacing the PC as the platform. In hindsight, his pitch was much too early," Mark Mahaney, an analyst at Citigroup Research, wrote in a research note. "However, today's announcement indicates that perhaps the Internet can become the platform for applications delivery."