Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Oracle buys Sun (and why I'd rather it was IBM)

Few IT companies command more respect from me than IBM. Although it has, in the distant past, been a bit of a dinosaur, I think they have the healthiest approach to technology of any major player today. They've managed to reform an antiquated behemoth of a company as it existed in the early 90s into a robust business built around services and high-end research. The two things I admire most about them:

1. They don't exhibit technology ownership paranoia. They have repeatedly embraced technologies without trying to control, limit and guide them for their own purposes. The communities they have built around Linux, Java (and especially Eclipse) and many other technologies tell me that they understand that it's best to have a piece of a big cake than all of a cookie. Even in markets that they compete in (AIX, DB2, POWER) their services arm is more than happy to use a third party or open source alternative if it best suits the needs of the project.

2. They're not afraid to cull failing businesses. Their ThinkPads were my favourite brand of non-Mac laptops and had a sterling reputation and considerable market share, but the division was still losing money. IBM were shrewd enough to realise that the PC business (Apple's high-margin niche notwithstanding) was irrevocably commoditised. When you're getting killed by cheap Chinese manufacturers, it's best to pack up and leave the building, and that's what they did: Sold the PC division to Lenovo. The company that introduced the PC got out of the PC business, just like that - because it made sense, and any desire to hold on to the past in a futile attempt to maintain the status quo just didn't figure in the decision. Applause all round.

I'm also a big fan of a lot of technologies that have come out of Sun Microsystems; most notably Java, but also DTrace and ZFS. However, I've never been a fan of the company itself - they've come up with all this wonderful technology over the years but have not only failed to find ways to make it prosper (for them and for the world at large), but usually actively bungled things in spectacular ways. This hasn't been helped by their tendency to change strategy on everything every six months. This hilarious little doodle from Ars Technica really says it all:


Image from Ars Technica, linked without permission.

So I was quite disheartened by the fact that Oracle, not IBM (who made an initial offer a few days ago), will end up owning Sun and all the wonderful technologies that have suffered under its stewardship. I am ambivalent about this; though I have great respect for Oracle and its products, and it's also a company that embraces third-party technologies with openness (Java and Linux have both benefited greatly from Oracle's support), it is still a company built around a rather inflexible business model of selling high-cost software licenses for big, monolithic applications. The prospects of Java and ZFS on the desktop, which I'd really like to see because I think they have great potential to revolutionise how we develop software and how we store our data, will probably languish under Oracle's stewardship as it focuses solely on the enterprise.

Still, it could be worse. Anything is better than what Sun has been doing with its crown jewels the past few years, and hey, at least it's not Microsoft!

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