In the annals of the computer industry, rare indeed is the company that can ride one wave of technology to its fullest, then change course quickly enough to catch another big one. But scrappy Sun Microsystems, which became the leading maker of computer workstations in the late 1980s but more recently appeared headed for a hard fall, may be in the midst of just such a spectacular maneuver.
Sun believes that hardware and software for the Internet will reinvigorate a business that even top executives admit had fallen into the doldrums--and it has some hot products to back up its hype. A programming language called Java, introduced earlier this year, has taken the Internet by storm because it makes it easy to do something that lots of people now want to do: create interactive content for the Internet's World Wide Web.
A companion product, Hot Java, is designed to search through the mountains of information stored on the Net. The Sunscreen line of hardware and software products aim to protect the privacy of information sent on computer networks. And on Tuesday, Sun introduced a line of servers--machines that orchestrate the traffic of networked computers--that are designed to make it easy to manage large amounts of video on computer networks.
Analysts find the lineup impressive, and Wall Street has rewarded the company by tripling its stock price in the last year.
Success, of course, is by no means assured: the Internet craze is likely to die down, and there are plenty of well-heeled competitors in every corner of the business. But Sun's transformation already offers an interesting lesson in what a creative company can do when the going gets tough.
The difficulties began in the early 1990s, when Sun's high-powered workstations, favored by scientists and engineers and even some Wall Street analysts who needed to do lots of number crunching, started losing ground to newer, faster machines from Hewlett-Packard Co. Sun's strategy of selling its computers to more mainstream customers, meanwhile, was foundering in the face of ever-more-powerful personal computers.
"I wouldn't say we were stale," says Scott McNealy, Sun chairman and co-founder. "But we were back on our heels a bit."
"I had become really frustrated that Sun wasn't doing new things," said Eric Schmidt, Sun co-founder and chief technology officer. In early 1991, Schmidt approached McNealy and spelled out the problem: If the company failed to better capitalize on its technology, there was a good chance that it could be rendered irrelevant. As a young computer scientist, Schmidt had worked at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, famous for inventing the first personal computer, laser printer and graphic user-interface software, and then failing to commercialize those technologies.
He experienced a bit of deja vu as he observed the meteoric rise of Silicon Valley neighbor Cisco Systems Inc., which makes hardware and software for routing data across computer networks. "We looked at Cisco and thought that could have been us," Schmidt remembers. "We had all that technology, and we hadn't done the right thing with it."
In the late '80s, Sun had developed the Network File System, or NFS, a technology that allowed a computer user to access information on a server as easily as he did on his own machines. Although it seems natural today, it was revolutionary at the time.
McNealy was receptive to changes. Schmidt, who had been vice president of a Sun division, was to oversee technology development for the company. His new job was to identify interesting technologies and, as McNealy describes it, "coddling them." That often included raising the ire of the more established product group, hungry for the companies' limited resources. But Schmidt stuck to his guns.
"You have to set aside resources for these small teams and tell the others, 'no.' Ultimately, you need new things to be segregated from existing operating pressures," he said.
McNealy describes it more colorfully, "You put these talented programmers in a room and throw raw meat at them."
One of those programmers was James Gosling, the software programmer who led the Java development team. Gosling's project was kept a secret--even to others at Sun. At first, Java was created for set-top boxes, the devices that would transform a television into a interactive computer so that a viewer could order videos on demand or shop at home.
The Java team commenced work in 1991, when the hype surrounding interactive television was at a fevered pitch. Cable and telephone companies rushed to hook up with computer companies for interactive TV trials. A year later, it became apparent that the technology had been oversold: It was complicated and therefore expensive, and most viewers were unwilling to pay a premium for movies that they could rent at the local video store for a couple of bucks.
So, Sun scrambled. Changes were made so Java could be used to create content for the Internet, which quickly replaced interactive TV as the hot new technology.
Sun makes Java available for free on the Internet: The idea is that the more the Internet grows, the better it is for Sun. More than half of the Internet servers, the computers that link into this unruly network of computers, are made by Sun.
With its new servers, Sun hopes to push network technology further into corporations. Unlike such rivals as database software maker Oracle Corp. and its hardware partner NCube, Sun's servers are targeted not at consumer entertainment networks of the future, but at the business applications of today. McNealy says that applications that train workers and bring the latest in business news to Wall Street professionals have more near-term revenue potential.
So far, the reception has been favorable. "Things like training might not seem as exciting as some of the other uses for this technology," says Jay Bretzmann, director of systems analysis for International Data Corp., a Framingham, Mass., market research firm. "But think of the money a company can save by training workers at their desks rather than flying them off to a course at headquarters. These are the kinds of hard dollars savings that justify the expense of the Sun machines."
"Every company has technology laying around that it's not using. Look at DEC--they had all the technology to build PCs and workstations, but they didn't."