November 16, 2006

Is Sun Rediscovering its Creative Roots?

I recently attended a dinner party in San Francisco, courtesy of Sun Microsystems, that featured guests from eBay, PG&E, and of course Sun. Despite the abysmal traffic that all attendees faced in getting to downtown on a rainy night, eventually 25 or so folks enjoyed dinner together. Although one could easy have assumed that the topic de jure would have been about Sun’s or eBay’s latest product offering, the theme of the evening was about energy conservation. PG&E was touting some of its latest energy conservation initiatives aimed at the data center. Although the California utility is well known for its programs to prod customers into retiring aging and inefficient household appliances and lighting, its efforts targeting at IT infrastructure efficiency are less well known. Sun discussed the various rebates from PG&E that applied to new energy thrifty Sun servers and eBay talked about how they are becoming more energy efficient in their datacenter.

In other matters new and different, Sun recently announced Sun Startup Essentials, a program designed to enable early-stage companies to deploy Sun technology at price points commensurate with start up businesses. The announcement followed Sun's Startup Camp, which gathered more than 400 entrepreneurs to share their insights and experiences about turning ideas into viable businesses. Sun products eligible for discounts include its energy-efficient, Sun Fire x64 and Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers, as well as x64 and UltraSPARC-based workstations. According to Sun, the UltraSPARC-based Sun Fire T1000 and T2000 servers deliver 5x the performance of competitive servers, using 1/5 the power and 1/4 the space and are the only systems to qualify for a power rebate from PG&E.

The company also announced it is releasing its implementations of Java as free software under the GNU General Public License version two (GPLv2). Included in this release are the first pieces of source code (Java HotSpot [jvm], Java compiler [javac], and JavaHelp) for Sun's implementation of Java Platform Standard Edition (Java SE) as well as a buildable implementation of Java Platform Micro Edition (Java ME). In addition, Sun is adding the GPLv2 license to Java Platform Enterprise Edition (Java EE), which has been available for over a year under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL) through Project GlassFish. In addition to CDDL, Project GlassFish will also be available under GPLv2 in the first quarter of 2007.

OK, so Sun has been busy making announcements. In and of itself, this is no big deal, but when one stops to think about what is contained in the announcements, there is something much bigger to be gleaned. All of these activities represent the kind of game changing marketing that was historically associated with Sun. More than just saying, “Ours is better than yours” these announcements construct new opportunities through efforts to create new markets as opposed to simply playing king of the hill on tried and trued marketplaces. By emphasizing a new approach to financing startups, Sun is quite possibly bringing new customers into its fold that would likely otherwise have gone for the white box, or highest discounted price available approach. With its emphasis on energy efficiency and partnership with PG&E, Sun is looking to change the rules by which products will be assessed, and has brought in some creative outside financial incentives to help change the playing field as well. By releasing Java under the GPL, the company has finally changed its outmoded view that a key software should remain under Copernican lock and key and has instead chosen to join open community process with hopefully, further deployment of Java as a truly priceless technology.

This kind of creative behavior, as also noted with Project Blackbox, is a welcome return by Sun to its own startup mentality of snarky, dynamic, and a historically smart competitive playbook. Technology is cool and fun, if you are a geek, but for the rest of the market, it is a tool, or worse, a mystery. For those seeking tools to make their businesses operational competitive, however, technology is an afterthought, function is the paramount concern. Getting the message out to potential customers is a long term endeavor, but one that pays substantial dividends for those who have a differentiating message and take the time to articulate it.

While it was a raining evening outside of the dinner party, inside we were treated to an illuminating look at how some traditional, and not so traditional, IT players were seeking to create new opportunity and bolster competitive advantage. It is this very kind of discussion and general business focused thinking that the marketplace is looking to vendors to provide, and happily, at least some are beginning to step up to the plate. Now of course, my trip in and out of downtown would have been more efficient, and actually less costly, if I had only taken the subway rather than driving, I would have experienced greater energy efficiency, and saved time and money. Perhaps I should have listened more intently to the presenters at the dinner party.

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