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Sun proclaims it is No. 1

Sun proclaims that it is the No. 1 Unix workstation vendor, though Unix shipments are decreasing in the face of the NT onslaught.

Sun Microsystems (SUNW) fired back today, responding to a report from a major marketing research firm stating that Hewlett-Packard (HWP) was the No. 1 one overall workstation vendor for 1997.

Sun wants to make clear that it was the No. 1 Unix workstation vendor, though this claim may increasingly lose meaning as the makeup of the sector changes from a Unix-centric environment to one dominated by Microsoft-Intel machines.

Sun held on to the No. 1 position in Unix workstations by a wide margin, according to a report to be published next week by International Data Corporation (IDC). (See related story) In 1997, Sun shipped nearly three times as many as Unix workstations as HP.

However, IDC is the same marketing research firm that stated earlier this week in a preliminary report that Hewlett-Packard was now the No. 1 overall workstation vendor, taking some of the sting out of the Sun response. The earlier report said that when both Unix and Windows NT-based workstations are counted together, HP surpassed to become the No. 1 workstation vendor in 1997.

Personal workstations based on Intel processors and the Windows NT operating system have challenged traditional workstations using a variety of Unix and RISC processors. This year, some analysts predict that three times as many Microsoft-Intel personal workstations will be sold compared to their Unix counterparts.

In response to this phenomenon, Sun appears to be talking out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, it is saying that Microsoft-Intel workstations aren't really workstations but simply fast PCs. But at the same time it is touting its low-cost workstations, which are being marketed in response to the Microsoft-Intel threat.

"When an industry manufacturer wants to control the definition of a category to make its market share figures look pumped up, then you know they are being encroached upon with significant impact," says Richard Zwetchkenbaum, an industry analyst.

"We believe that the advent of our low-price, high-powered systems will prompt an identity crisis for the trumped-up PCs that our competitors in the Wintel camp call personal workstations," said Anil Gadre, vice president of marketing for Sun in a prepared statement.

Sun says that the Unix systems will continue to offer better performance and that with the advent of its new low-cost UItra workstations released earlier this month, the price advantage PC systems had enjoyed will evaporate.

While Sun is busy deriding NT-based personal workstations, the market and customers are defining what it thinks a workstation is--and increasingly the PC architecture--appears to be the system of choice.

Customers have typically associated workstations with engineering, financial, and scientific uses where those systems didn't have office productivity applications, according to Dr. John Latta, president of Fourth Wave, a consultancy specializing in multimedia and graphics market research. But that definition is changing because of the sales volume currently enjoyed by the PC platform.

"The vast majority of Unix applications are moving to NT. In some [market segments], 90 to 100 percent of the applications are moving over. There are so many flavors of Unix--developers have to customize their programs for each flavor of Unix" if they want to target HP, Sun, and SGI, he said. "What happens with NT is they are insulated from those problems."

With developers targeting the NT platform with new software, customers may find fewer and fewer reasons to choose a Unix system in the years to come, especially as analysts believe the performance advantage of Unix workstations will diminish over time.