Sun Aims to Beat the Software Jinx

Can Sun Microsystems ride the Java wave to become a major software supplier? The engineering workstation pioneer is doing all it can to buy its way into the business of selling development tools and application servers, but history has shown that the voyage won't be easy.

But the journey is necessary if a systems manufacturer wants to become a dominant supplier to the largest of IT organizations. For many of these units, Sun Microsystems must offer some kind of one-stop shopping. Many IT executives have told us they don't want to go through the hassles of dealing with multiple suppliers of systems, development tools, data management and applications software. Many also want software that can run without much change on multiple operating systems and database platforms. A substantial softwarebusiness lessens a company's dependence on systems offerings, an effect that makes investors smile.

Of the major systems providers, only IBM has been somewhat successful in selling non-operating system software. And IBM software success hasn't come easy. IBM's DB2 Universal Database and the VisualAge tools still run mostly on IBM platforms. Hewlett-Packard Co. has made several largely unsuccessful attempts to build and sell development tools and repositories. The former Digital Equipment Corp. abandoned the software strategy with perhaps the best chance of success in order to concentrate on the Alpha processor.

For the most part, the major problem was not the software, but the mindset of management and sales personnel. These companies brought in more revenue, and thus the sales force made more money selling systems. Software was an afterthought, sold only to close hardware sales.

Now it is Sun's turn. Earlier efforts, such as the Java Studio toolset and some Unix management packages, proved less than successful. But none of those attracted the financial investment or the management attention paid to the firm's latest effort profiled in this month's cover story, "Surprising Sun sets software pace". Sun has spent upwards of $750 million, not only for software but a management team to run the operation. Experts speak highly of the tools and EAI software acquired with Forté and NetBeans, as well as of the latest application server strategy.

As Sun's versions of these solutions start shipping, we'll find out whether the company can be a truly successful provider of software. Top Sun management cannot pull resources from the software business at the first sign of slowing computer sales. And management of the software business must be allowed to operate somewhat independently of the systems folks. Can it be done? Sure, but it requires a new mindset among the executive class. We'll continue to update you on Sun's progress through the software waters.

Best regards,

Michael W. Bucken

About the Author

Mike Bucken is former Editor-in-Chief of Application Development Trends magazine.