The Sun's still shining

High Noon
March 24, 2000

The media are in a frenzy about the internet revolution, and Silicon Valley in California is seen as the centre of that revolution, spawning "dot-com" companies at a remarkable rate. The 1990s saw the rise of the internet in the public eye. However, the 1980s was also an interesting time in Silicon Valley; the internet was already very much alive in high-technology companies and academia. During this period, many now well-established technology corporations were formed.

Sun Microsystems is one such. Founded in 1982 by four maverick students from Stanford and Berkeley, the very name Sun originally stood for "Stanford University Network". The company has always seen the network as central to its products. Indeed one of its most famous and often misunderstood slogans was "The network is the computer".

The company thought of itself as a "zero billion dollar company" right from the start. The founders had the confidence - some might say naivety - to believe that they had a winning product and vision. It turned out that they were by and large right, at least so far. The company has been a leader in the Unix workstation and server market with integral networking capability, producing a succession of products, some devastatingly successful.

Others were equally unsuccessful (eg the super-Sparc microprocessor technology, saved later by ultraSparc). However, Silicon Valley has never been afraid of failure, since only a proportion of ideas will be winners: a lesson this country should take to heart.

Sun has always been a company run by engineers with products designed for engineers, with a rather anarchic and sometimes confrontational culture. One of the four founders, Scott McNealy, is not an engineer, but has acted as the "front man" for the company in various roles throughout its existence.

This book charts the history of Sun Microsystems, with a special emphasis on McNealy. It is written by a journalist, and is very readable, giving a flavour of the triumphs and disasters of the company over the years. From my peripheral knowledge of the company (as a Sun workstation user for many years and visitor to Silicon Valley since the 1980s), the book seems to be a reasonably reliable account. However, it was undertaken without McNealy's cooperation. The reason is left unexplained, but it appears that he is a rather private man behind his extrovert corporate persona.

After an introduction to the recent US lawsuit against Microsoft, in which Sun is involved on the opposing side, the story proceeds chronologically. The first chapter describes how the founders came together, and the book details the various battles between the personnel involved and the important products and technologies produced by Sun.

Although Sun has traditionally been a workstation company, it has been willing to adapt as necessary with changes in the market. Sun has been behind the Java technology, widely seen as the internet programming language, that is covered in some detail by the book. Sun's opposition to Microsoft's dominance is legendary, and Sun hoped that Java would make the underlying operating system irrelevant. While this has not occurred quite as Sun had hoped, the technology still has much potential. Jini is the next related Sun technology, which will allow any product from a camera to a refrigerator to connect to the internet, but it remains to be seen how it will develop.

The book is written in a style that draws you in, especially if you have at least a partial knowledge of the company. I would recommend it to any owner of a Sun workstation or visitor to Silicon Valley. In this internet age, Sun has become one of the behemoths of the information technology arena. It must adapt if it is to defend itself against the ubiquitous Windows technology. Sun has the wherewithal and gall to accept that challenge, but the outcome is far from certain.

Jonathan Bowen is professor of computing, South Bank University.

High Noon: The Inside Story of Scott McNealy and Rise of the Sun Microsystems

Author - Karen Southwick
ISBN - 0 47129713 5
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £16.50
Pages - 242

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