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i-Technology Viewpoint: SUNset?

A Sideways Look at Sun's Technology Advertising and Marketing

Related Links:
  • Sun and Microsoft's Interoperability Efforts Delayed Once More
  • IBM Exec Slams Sun's JavaOne/SunNetwork Merger Plans

    Sun Microsystems famously grew from start-up mode to $1 billion in annual sales without spending one cent on advertising its products.

    It established early on a reputation for good performance, good pricing, and the latest in a software environment that appealed to technically oriented users who were writing software, designing bridges, and taking over Wall Street with what was then a new category of "technical workstations."

    The tall, sage figure of company co-founder and software genius Bill Joy was ubiquitous at relevant trade shows during the early days, giving a human face to this upstart company that eventually drove numerous larger firms out of this part of the business. Co-genius and hardware guru Andy Bechtolsheim was seen less often, but inspired equally with his soft-spoken mastery of the nuts and bolts.

    Sun leveraged this success into larger systems that served networks of workstations, in increasingly sophisticated and complex applications. It spread its influence into all the major vertical markets, whether government, manufacturing, telecommunications, or retail. It became a legitimate competitor to industry behemoths IBM and Hewlett Packard.

    Sun finally became large enough to force its fiscally conservative CEO Scott McNealy to start advertising. So it did. Some of its campaigns were direct and successful, others less so. Its initial efforts were in a pre-Web age, so it concentrated on focused, print advertising campaigns. It avoided expensive, diffuse TV advertising.

    The one day, sometime during the 90s, Sun seemingly discovered television and Microsoft all at once. McNealy started railing against "the evil empire from Redmond." While railing against the "mainframe hairballs" presumably developed by its traditional competitors, he saved his most vitriolic and personal attacks for Microsoft and its chairman Bill Gates, once even noting that he was "sure that my child is better looking than his."

    A stated libertarian, he most likely was terrifically offended by what he perceived as Microsoft's monopolistic market manipulation. Microsoft broke a compact, in McNealy's view it seems, by flouting the anti-trust codes of a federal government that he felt shouldn't be empowered to intervene among fair-minded competitors. But with McNealy seemingly believing that Microsoft was acting less than fair-minded, he became a proponent of federal action to mitigate what Bill and company were doing.

    But McNealy's Microsoft-bashing didn't end there. He also seemed to believe that Sun's systems were legitimate competitors in the consumer marketplace to personal computers running Microsoft Windows. Sun was superior to Microsoft in every way, ran this view. No one should ever run a system based on Windows. To this day, Sun employees are strongly encouraged to avoid all Microsoft products and forbidden to run some of them, according to a recent report in the
    San Francisco Chronicle .

    Meandering Marketing

    What does all this have to do with Sun today? Nothing and everything. On the one hand, it is merely a digression about one CEO's seeming obsession with another CEO. On the other, it strikes to the heart of the matter of why I get so confused by a lot of Sun’s technology advertising and marketing.

    McNealy's Microsoft obsession badly skewed the message his company should have been sending to its customers and prospects. This is not the only instance of this phenomenon. When Sun ran its first TV ad in the 90s, it featured an arrow flying through space in a circuitous route toward a target, finding the bull's-eye at the end of the commercial. "All the wood behind one arrow" was its theme.

    Sun employees and vendors knew what this meant, but did anyone else? We knew that Scott was fond of using this analogy to describe how Sun would focus all of its efforts on a single, integrated hardware and software platform that was allegedly more powerful and effective than anything on the market. Don't get distracted with multiple systems approaches (as IBM and HP had in those days), but keep all the wood behind one arrow.

    I am sure that at least 99.9 percent of the viewing audience had no idea of why this analogy was used and what it was supposed to mean. Good thing, by the way, because the arrow wasn’t very big or powerful, implying that its originator wasn’t, either. But the good news was that Sun either lacked the funds or the gall to run its opaque message more than once. The ad disappeared with very little trace.

    Fast forwarding to the late 90s, one once again saw Sun's message on television, although this time the ads were hard to miss. The company had by now morphed up more than a magnitude to $10 billion in annual revenue and rising. It had ridden the dot-com boom by providing a large share of the servers that supported high-traffic websites and by benefiting from a ballooning stock price through media hype of its Java programming language.

    Java, for which my marketing company had written a white paper concerning outlining its original, modest intent as a set-top box operating environment, was suddenly the universal solvent for all technology challenges and opportunities. Java had a simple, appealing name (in contrast to typically arcane-sounding programming languages such as C++ or Modula-3), which led to simplistically appealing coverage of its wonders as the driver of the dot-com age.

    Mid-level marketing managers associated with it became overnight media superstars and Java was said to be the magic brew fueling the Worldwide Web.

    All of this resulted in Sun deciding to position itself as "the dot in dot-com." Any Marketing 101 professor will tell you neither to position yourself to narrowly if you don't have to nor to attach yourself to something so new and exciting that its tenability could be suspect. Undaunted, Sun decided that it had latched onto the perfect message, that by "attaching our grappling hook to the dot-com rocket," in McNealy's phrase, it could now tout its success to the masses.

    One little problem I had with this campaign was that it seemed to kill its customers: the TV campaign featured a bunch of what appeared to be a nice enough, properly diverse group of youngish execs sitting around a standard-issue boardroom table, only to suffer apparently lethal electrical shock as Sun's omnipotent "dot" invaded their space and blew them away.

    This again resulted in a message that was a.) unclear in defining the company's benefits, b.) vacuously incautious about the underlying message it was communicating.

    What Now?

    When dot-com became dot-bomb, Sun was shown to have no aplomb. Revenues started to disappear as its narrowly cast message proved worthless to technology buyers looking for value and flexibility rather than glibness and hubris. McNealy's continued rants against Redmond, breezy assurances that Java is the answer for everything, and insistence on non-starters such as StarOffice should blow Microsoft Office out of the water did nothing but turn Wall Street, analysts, and customers off.

    I'm the same age as Scott, and trust me, I don't use the same lines in any conversation that I used in my 20s. They haven't worked for years!

    Many years ago I had the experience of being involved in negotiations with Ed Zander, the former Sun COO and man often given credit for managing Sun's rapid growth with assurance. The negotiations with Zander, now CEO of Motorola, were unpleasant, brisk, and productive. This man was probably no fun at a beer bust, but he was very clear about what Sun would agree to, and how fast the clock was ticking.

    It's my opinion that Zander's leaving was the clearest sign that the glory days are gone forever. His management style was well-known to be brusque, and the results the company achieved under his leadership were extraordinary. You didn't hear visionary gibberish or frat-boy insults from Zander.


    I have not had the pleasure of interacting with Sun's new COO Jonathan Schwartz. But it seems he's coming from the visionary side of things, and what Sun needs more than anything right now is an operations savant, because there are numerous reasons not to give up on Sun:


    • There are ridiculous numbers of good uses for Java, and there's no reason for me to detail any of them, as you can find all you need to know in JDJ's regular features and columns.
    • I've been working with a group of people on developing e-government initiatives, and we like Solaris, because it's Unix - it has been able to let more than one person at a time do more than one thing at a time since dirt was young.
    • On the hardware side, I still think that when you have a transaction-intensive, real-time application that Sun's iron still sets the price/performance benchmark. (We're staying away from the Dell/Linux combo for now, because we don't want to deploy legions of fungible boxes, we want to deploy a few high-value boards, and we don't like the dark side of Moore's Law, which says all your Wintel/Lintel iron is obsolete in three years. And we're starting to worry about heat, too.)
    • Sun employs large numbers of highly intelligent vertical market specialists who understand the specific needs, on a global basis, of their customers.

    Yet these great technologies and great people are continually hamstrung by a CEO who believes StarOffice will overtake Microsoft Office and by squadrons of marketing communications managers whose simple goal is to "stay on message," no matter how irrelevant, tangential, or condescending the bullet points in that message are. If you are someone who never gets tired of hearing "proven," "best-of-breed," "cost-effective," or "taking the surprise out of business solutions," then contact Sun and demand as much of their current marketing material as they can muster.


    A House of Mirrors


    A good example of Sun's current marketing-think is provided by a survey I recently received from Sun that asked me to associate a bunch of canned euphemisms with a particular company. Since this survey wasn't blind, i.e., I was told that it was sent to me by Sun, the punches in this thing were telegraphed a la George Foreman in 1974. The survey even had the gall to ask whether I (and other survey takers) had heard of the phrase, "the network is the computer," and if so, what company that was associated with.


    I guess if most people answer those questions correctly then the survey will prove that Sun has been "right" all along, and that there's nothing wrong with the company's performance. "Oh, that's right, the network is the computer and Sun invented that phrase. Say no more, I'll buy your proven solutions with best-of-breed technologies to take the surprise out of my business solutions and maintain competitive advantage in a cost-effective manner!"


    This survey seemed to be an effort to deliver a pre-conceived package of customer input that would simply reinforce obtuse prejudices held by top management. It did nothing to ascertain how its customers actually feel about Sun and its standing among its competitors.


    Detroit failed in the 70s because the execs looked out their windows and saw nothing but American cars. The threat from Japanese companies was not part of their world, so they missed it. Sun is going to fail in this decade if it does nothing but send out surveys to customers asking them to validate marketing phrases of Sun's creation.


    If Sun management will not seek the underlying causes of why IT buyers would buy stuff from other companies, it will miss the threat from other companies. It's one thing to obsess about competitors; it's quite another to find out why they are causing you trouble and then honestly figuring out how to do something about it.


    So readers of JDJ can continue to debate the arcane technical merits of Java specifically and Sun technology in general, as they should. But if they're smart, they'll be careful about staking too much of their own careers on a company that has lost its way and shows few signs of being the market leader it was for many years. Brashness and bravado are cool if the company knows how to love its customers and fight its competition. Otherwise, that and two bucks will get you a cup of old-fashioned java at the corner Starbucks.

    Related Links:

  • Sun and Microsoft's Interoperability Efforts Delayed Once More
  • IBM Exec Slams Sun's JavaOne/SunNetwork Merger Plans
  • More Stories By Roger Strukhoff

    Roger Strukhoff (@IoT2040) is Executive Director of the Tau Institute for Global ICT Research, with offices in Illinois and Manila. He is Conference Chair of @CloudExpo & @ThingsExpo, and Editor of SYS-CON Media's CloudComputing BigData & IoT Journals. He holds a BA from Knox College & conducted MBA studies at CSU-East Bay.

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    Most Recent Comments
    gmajor 09/22/04 04:02:48 AM EDT

    I am a frequent reader of Jonathan Schwartz' blog, and one of his constant themes/rants is that the open source community respects IBM more than it deserves.

    In my opinion, other companies (i.e. Sun) are jealous of IBM's unique position and would like nothing more than to ruin that relationship.

    IBM, while not entirely faultless, has taken a huge risk in tying some of its business and marketing campaigns to the success of Linux. Even while having AIX. I wish the same could be said for Sun. Glad to see it's paying of for IBM, in the form of profits and community goodwill.

    Roger V 09/22/04 02:31:20 AM EDT

    Right on. Maybe some folks will read and take to heart.

    Personally would like to see Sun re-invent and stay around. They have
    contributed so much to IT industry. Is shame they haven't found good formula
    for making money on such innovations as Java. If they could somehow get
    rewarded for the immense value Java provides to all that use it for their
    living, then Sun would be very successful. But free software expectations
    fostered by the open source movement has created the mindset that it's
    unethical to charge money for software innovation.

    Inglenook 09/21/04 04:02:40 AM EDT

    From the article:

    "On the hardware side, I still think that when you have a transaction-intensive, real-time application that Sun's iron still sets the price/performance benchmark."

    I don't know which hardware is being considered here, but in recent times Sun's Sparc based hardware has been taken to the cleaners in price/performance terms by the competition. Forgetting the Intel based servers, the HP Itanium systems and the IBM Power based systems have outclassed Sparc systems for some time. Even the best Sparc systems are not made by Sun - Fujitsu has that honour.

    Alex Iskold 09/20/04 09:45:39 PM EDT

    I wish there would be more articles like this one in technical magazines. Bravo!

    Kainaw 09/20/04 07:20:57 PM EDT

    "It's jargon and buzzwords and nothing more."

    That is mostly correct. Decision makers do get deaf to words they hear too much. But, tech marketing is also a numbers (or versions) game. For instance, is Company A's Superpro 1700 better than Company B's Megapro 1600? The people making decisions don't know what the numbers mean. That marketing hype is in all areas of hardware from the computers to video cards and monitors (my 19" LCD has a screen that is actually 17" - but the casing is 19"). It is also in software - just look at IE and Netscape's version jockying in the past.

    jimfulton 09/20/04 07:18:13 PM EDT

    [Marketing] Will never understand Technology.

    Only for poor marketers and poor technologists.

    Good technology marketers often start out as as engineers who find they have a passion for evangelizing their creations. Similarly, the best technologists make the biggest impact on the world often because they are able to get people to immediately understand the value of what they create.

    The "field of dreams" approach usually ends up giving you a pile of dirt covered with weeds.

    StCredZero 09/20/04 07:15:30 PM EDT

    Deciding if marketing-speak is BS based on buzzword matching/frequency counting is just sinking to their level. It's as devoid of semantics and real thought as buzzword matching to do hiring. After all, there's always a marketing/engineering disconnect, so this will likely tell you zilch about the technology.

    If you want to evaluate a technology, evaluate the technology -- ignore all of the marketing. Be empirical. Actually play with the technology. If they won't let you get your hands on it, then be suspicious.

    Responding to the original post, that's right if you define "maturity" for an industry to mean "the point at which a significant fraction of those involved don't understand what they're saying and just pass along marketspeak like neurons in a big brain processing signals."

    ThogScully 09/20/04 07:07:44 PM EDT

    The job of a marketing department is to control the marketing. They can't be the reason for technology lagging. Technology will lag when those responsible for it stop improving it. Marketing will still try to hype the technology even if it is faltering and that's their job.

    MHleads 09/20/04 06:59:19 PM EDT

    It is a small favor IBM can return, given the fact that IBM has earned more dollars with Java than Sun.

    SpaceLifeForm 09/20/04 06:58:14 PM EDT

    It's too late. Sun has already gotten in bed with MS.

    b1t r0t 09/20/04 06:57:05 PM EDT

    Or even Apple. It would be interesting to see what comes out the rear end if you try to merge Solaris and OS X.

    El_Ge_Ex 09/20/04 06:56:00 PM EDT

    The best thing that could happen to Sun is for them to go under and IBM buy the assets. The last thing the industry is for the same people that ruined Sun to ruin IBM as well.

    smartin 09/20/04 06:54:29 PM EDT

    The best thing that could happen to Sun is for IBM to buy them. It would IBM give them access to Java, they could merge Solaris, AIX and Linux, and Sun hardware would probably sell better than the equivalents in the IBM line.

    Beryllium Sphere 09/20/04 06:53:12 PM EDT

    Talking to your existing customers works fine in a static market. You can still win even if the technology is changing but the customers remain the same. "The Innovator's Dilemma" pulls a lot of material from a large study of the disk drive industry. Incumbent players stayed in business through radical changes in technology, dying only from changes in the market.

    Changes in the market happen when a "disruptive" technology comes along. "Disruptive" doesn't mean you have to rip out your assembly line: the disk drive makers succeeded at that several times. "Disruptive" means something that redefines the market.

    The personal computer is a clear example. Like other disruptive technologies it was cheaper than what was already there, sold to a different set of customers, and wasn't as good (*at first*) as the incumbent technology. DEC's customers continued using VAXen to do work that wouldn't fit on the first personal computers.

    Then the new customers buy in volume, mass production drives down the price, high volume pays for improvements, and before you can say "386" the disruptive technology is undermining the old technology. Companies like DEC wind up selling "proven" solutions to a shrinking customer base. Eventually they die.

    "Marketing", in its highest and most useful form, involves getting into the heads of your customers and understanding what they need before they know it themselves. But the future lies with people who are not your customers.

    The book listed other examples including hydraulic earth-moving equipment, but the principle was the same.

    hab136 09/20/04 06:46:48 PM EDT

    "Sun is going to fail in this decade if ...."
    Uh.... didn't Sun fail last decade??

    Nope, I looked outside, and The Sun(tm) is working perfectly! In fact, I used too much of The Sun(tm) over the weekend and it seems to have given me a nasty burn.

    I hate The Sun(tm) now.

    turgid 09/20/04 06:43:56 PM EDT

    who the hell installs a NEW Sun system these days?

    Well, the Sun Opteron [] boxes [] are selling like hot cakes. The sales of UltraSPARC kit has increased by several 10s of percent in the last couple of quarters, so I suppose one or two people must be installing new Sun kit.

    If we believed everything intel and HP were trelling us, we'd realise that every 64-bit platform other than itanic [] is doomed since itanic is taking over the world [] and resistance is futile [].

    But then what would I know?

    Archangel Michael 09/20/04 06:33:38 PM EDT

    Marketing Speak is the SYMPTOM of the problem. The problem is much deeper. It is an indication that the industry has stopped using NEW ideas to create better products, or new products never seen before. It is a sign of a Mature Market.

    How can you decide between the $9.95 mouse and the $11.95 one? Buzzwords and Marketing Technobabble.

    Or as one of my professors pointed out. When he asked his wife why she like one Fridge over another, she replied that she like the Handle. Everything else was the same in her mind.

    Cocteaustin 09/20/04 06:31:42 PM EDT

    This isn't the fault of technology marketers. It's the fault of technologists.

    Technology marketing at its best involves telling stories about technology to customers. It's as simple as that. Every time a technologist turns up his nose at a marketer, it makes it more difficult to tell that story. Even if you accept the fact that "engineers! are not good! at communicating! with customers!!!" it's still a fact that in the absence of input from engineers, marketers will be forced to fall back on meaningless cliches in their stories about what you build.

    So you know where I'm coming from, I'm a developer-slash-marketer working for a Silicon Valley company you've heard of -- I spend part of my time writing code examples for developers and another (small) chunk of my time writing and editing marketing copy.

    Breaking down the barriers between the geeks and the suits is something I've gotten very good at in the last few years. And here's a hint for geeks -- the suits are generally intimidated by you, which means it's your job to reach out to them and make them feel valued.

    cthrall 09/20/04 06:30:04 PM EDT

    > But it isn't just Sun, surely.

    There's dumb marketing everywhere.

    But Sun could have the best marketing on the planet and still not be selling their products (hardware and OS), which have been largely commoditized. Yes, they have high-end servers...but years ago, cheaper Intel/AMD boxes weren't considered "server-class" hardware like they are now.

    There is a larger issue: Sun's ability to "pull an IBM" and figure out how to leverage the changing software/hardware world instead of defending their market share.

    genka 09/20/04 05:40:28 PM EDT

    I never buy anything advertized with words "magic", "miracle", "revolutionary", "incredible", "amazing". It helps to avoid all kinds of junk.

    Bill Pechter 09/20/04 05:09:02 PM EDT

    Sounds a lot like DEC which was where I worked.
    The one operating system idea was based on VAX/VMS back then.
    DEC dropped the technical and educational product sales (from the PDP10 and 11 days) in favor of an attempt to sell to corporate IT types against IBM and gave up their OEM business in a push to do...

    They kept the MicroVax non-oem so it couldn't be built into machinery making a market for Motorola's 68k chip (which begat Sun's workstation). Sun's not a software company, regardless of what they say. They're a systems company and systems software. They're more like DEC than they'll admit.

    Sun's now repeating DEC's mistake... They're chasing the large server market against IBM and HP and getting pushed with low price/margin ia32 (x86) stuff from Dell and others. They've got to get their act together to sell into the low end market. There are thousands of Dell servers out there powering the internet which would've been Sun boxes if the price performance of the Netra boxes matched the Intel ones.

    They've gotten fat on the Telco market on high margin DC powered NEBS compliant boxes -- since their competition isn't too strong in that area. In AC powered internet stuff they've gotten their clocks cleaned by 1u and 2u DELL and IBM boxes.

    meburke 09/20/04 03:25:30 PM EDT

    I used to sell Sun back in the mid-90's and I believe their problems run much deeper than just the language. In fact, I re-read Goldratt's "The Goal" and "It's Not Luck" occasionally, and Sun is one of the first companies that comes to mind for the the examples of things they DIDN'T/DONT do.

    Calling Scott McNealy "fiscally conservative" is an understatement. During the mid-90's the local Sun office was devastated by workforce reductions and obsessive focussing on "headcount". Tech help was scarce, and morale was as low as I've seen in an office for a high-quality product. They moved from a well-organized top-floor office to a mediocre government-looking office across the street.
    You can only cut cost so far. You could cut costs to zero, and then where do you go to improve profitability?

    Sun never made it easy. The manuals were good for techs (although the first editions of some of the Solaris 6 and NIS manuals had major errors in them), the classes were great, but the customer focus was fuzzy and confused, just as the article said. And God help any unsuspecting IT manager who thought he could just load Solaris as easy as loading Windows! My impression was that the frustrations over the complex installation and administration process were major avoidable pitfalls in the Sun marketing plan.

    Luckily, I was mostly selling against NT 3.51 and had a major performance advantage at the time. The problem is, loading, configuring and administering Solaris is still a tedious, joyless task, even if it's done over a network. Troubleshooting administrative problems is not as easy as it could be, and the docs still suck.

    Jargonaut 09/20/04 02:38:31 PM EDT

    That's nothing. "Food" has now fallen by the wayside, to be replaced, I kid you not, by "Meal Solutions."

    Don't believe me? See for yourself.

    Scary or what?

    Marketingspeak 09/20/04 02:02:59 PM EDT

    The one I loved to hate was when a company I once worked for offered "time-compressed solutions."

    I guess "we do it fast" just wasn't classy enough.

    daniel 09/20/04 02:01:26 PM EDT

    This narrow read format is ridiculous. I just coudn't bear reading this article.

    anon 09/20/04 01:10:39 PM EDT

    Sun has been on a downward slide for a while. This article is too little too late.

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    Too often with compelling new technologies market participants become overly enamored with that attractiveness of the technology and neglect underlying business drivers. This tendency, what some call the “newest shiny object syndrome” is understandable given that virtually all of us are heavily engaged in technology. But it is also mistaken. Without concrete business cases driving its deployment, IoT, like many other technologies before it, will fade into obscurity.
    Discussions of cloud computing have evolved in recent years from a focus on specific types of cloud, to a world of hybrid cloud, and to a world dominated by the APIs that make today's multi-cloud environments and hybrid clouds possible. In this Power Panel at 17th Cloud Expo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists addressed the importance of customers being able to use the specific technologies they need, through environments and ecosystems that expose their APIs to make true change and transformation possible.
    The Internet of Things is clearly many things: data collection and analytics, wearables, Smart Grids and Smart Cities, the Industrial Internet, and more. Cool platforms like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Intel's Galileo and Edison, and a diverse world of sensors are making the IoT a great toy box for developers in all these areas. In this Power Panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, panelists discussed what things are the most important, which will have the most profound effect on the world, and what should we expect to see over the next couple of years.
    Microservices are a very exciting architectural approach that many organizations are looking to as a way to accelerate innovation. Microservices promise to allow teams to move away from monolithic "ball of mud" systems, but the reality is that, in the vast majority of organizations, different projects and technologies will continue to be developed at different speeds. How to handle the dependencies between these disparate systems with different iteration cycles? Consider the "canoncial problem" in this scenario: microservice A (releases daily) depends on a couple of additions to backend B (re...
    The cloud. Like a comic book superhero, there seems to be no problem it can’t fix or cost it can’t slash. Yet making the transition is not always easy and production environments are still largely on premise. Taking some practical and sensible steps to reduce risk can also help provide a basis for a successful cloud transition. A plethora of surveys from the likes of IDG and Gartner show that more than 70 percent of enterprises have deployed at least one or more cloud application or workload. Yet a closer inspection at the data reveals less than half of these cloud projects involve production...
    Growth hacking is common for startups to make unheard-of progress in building their business. Career Hacks can help Geek Girls and those who support them (yes, that's you too, Dad!) to excel in this typically male-dominated world. Get ready to learn the facts: Is there a bias against women in the tech / developer communities? Why are women 50% of the workforce, but hold only 24% of the STEM or IT positions? Some beginnings of what to do about it! In her Day 2 Keynote at 17th Cloud Expo, Sandy Carter, IBM General Manager Cloud Ecosystem and Developers, and a Social Business Evangelist, wil...