Thursday, February 24, 2022

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

Sun Microsystems was founded 24th February 1982, and died 27th January 2010. I spent 1982 on sabbatical in Amsterdam waiting for the Sun/1 we had ordered to show up. IIRC I visited their initial offices on Walsh Ave. in Santa Clara in early 1983, and joined the company in September 1985. I owe Sun, and the people who worked there, a debt of gratitude I could never repay.

In those early days Sun was an extraordinarily interesting company to work for, and throughout its 28-year history it spawned an incredible number of other startups. One of them was Nvidia, which is currently the 8th most valuable company in the world, but there are far too many others to list.

In It Isn't About The Technology I wrote:
In the late 80s I foresaw a bleak future for Sun Microsystems. Its profits were based on two key pieces of intellectual property, the SPARC architecture and the Solaris operating system. In each case they had a competitor (Intel and Microsoft) whose strategy was to make owning that kind of IP too expensive for Sun to compete. I came up with a strategy for Sun to undergo a radical transformation into something analogous to a combination of Canonical and an App Store. I spent years promoting and prototyping this idea within Sun.

One of the reasons I have great respect for Scott McNealy is that he gave me, an engineer talking about business, a very fair hearing before rejecting the idea, saying "Its too risky to do with a Fortune 100 company". Another way of saying this is "too big to pivot to a new, more “sustainable” business model".
In the terms that Wall St. imposes on public companies, Scott was right and I was wrong. In the 8 years or so from my talk to the dot-com crash SUNW made the stockholders an incredible amount of money. But then the money stopped, in some ways for the reasons I had spotted. Being right too soon is as bad as being wrong.

2 comments:

Matthew Jacob said...

Sun isn't entirely dead. There are still vast numbers of ex-Sun people within Oracle (as I now know personally) that function more or less as they did when Sun was still alive.

It's true the Systems group is long gone. But the hardware divisions (less CPU) have hung on tenaciously and guard their ground as zealously as they did the last time I did a consulting gig at Sun (mid 2000s)- and many of the same people are still present in Broomfield and at the campus in Santa Clara next to Rivermark.

The SUNW way of doing development carried to other companies as well. I personally experienced this at DSSD in the 2014-2016 time frame as that Andy company attracted mostly a Sun crowd (Bonwick, Shapiro, Bill Moore). However they also brought the sins of Sun with them- over-architecting and under-implementing and missing the market by a wide mark. Then a couple of them went next to a Security Gateway company which then spent 5 years doing mostly the same, losing the angel round and some of their money as they hadn't learned the first lesson of engineering which is: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good (a phrase the Bonwick himself is fond of).

I also hold a great debt to Sun- even though I made it into Sun despite the best efforts of some to keep me out. They were both right and wrong to do so. There was a great deal of talent and good will ther- but also a remarkably large amount of hubris- even over such small things like keyboards.

Ultimately I consider Sun was good preparation for me to take what I learned after Sun and with other companies to better balance rational thinking against speed. The lessons of the much maligned ARC process stand good stead even today during "velocity" and "break things" mantras.

David. said...

Tom Lyon, Sun employee #8, tweeted a thread about joining Sun.