Schwartz needs to get real about Linux

New CEO needs to make the most of Solaris, says Neil McAllister

Scott McNealy is out. Jonathan Schwartz is in, and the future never looked brighter for Sun Microsystems — or so we’re told.

But if Sun’s new chief executive is going to convince me that his company can remain a dominant player in enterprise software, first he’s going to have to get his story straight, particularly when it comes to Linux and open source.

Sun’s been making bold moves lately. Its shift to subscription pricing for its enterprise software suites was, frankly, innovative. The decision to open source its Solaris operating system brought it late to the game, but was welcome nonetheless. On numerous occasions, Sun executives have expressed their intention to, eventually, open all of the company’s software under similar terms (with the likely, albeit baffling, exception of Java).

“I think the core technologies that we’ve delivered to date have demonstrated an ability to drive growth,” Schwartz said during the conference call that announced his new role. Asked about the possibility of future acquisitions, he said, “We’re going to continue to look at companies that could ... expand the features and functions in Solaris, to make it competitive against its principal competitor”.

Sounds good. After all, Sun’s Solaris OS is a top-notch product. Schwartz really had me going there — right up to his next line, which was, “And, frankly, its principal competitor is none other than Microsoft Windows.”

Huh? That’s like a company that sells nothing but certified, pure-bred cocker spaniels claiming that the principal competition for its product is a pure-bred cat.

But then, Sun has never been able to own up to the elephant-sized mutt in the room. Say what you want about Microsoft’s business practices, but at least give Redmond credit for giving up pretending Linux doesn’t exist.

If you look at Sun’s public statements about Linux over the past few years, you can sum up its competitive strategy in three easy steps. First, equate all Linux with Red Hat; second, trash-talk Red Hat, its pricing and its business model; and, finally, point customers towards Solaris.

That may be a clever way to run a sales call, but Schwartz can’t honestly believe that’s how the thought process works in real life — can he?

“We will be one of the consolidators of the open source industry,” Schwartz went on to say, “as well as, certainly, in the open source operating system industry.”

Consolidators? Can he be serious? I know that, what with all the buzz around Oracle recently, buying up small open source companies is in vogue. But at least Larry Ellison is smart enough to recognise that it’s hard to buy and sell what you cannot own. Schwartz would do well to watch what Oracle does next, too, because in many ways it and Sun are in the same boat.

After operating systems, databases are the next great market opportunity for open source. Oracle makes a world-class product, a product with features that no other company can match. The problem is that maybe only the top 10% of customers actually need all those features. The rest can get by on core database functionality that’s increasingly being provided by open source products. Companies like EnterpriseDB and MySQL have already begun capitalising on that opportunity.

The same is true of Solaris. No matter what Jonathan Schwartz claims, Solaris doesn’t look anything like Windows. But Linux looks and quacks an awful lot like Solaris. Is Solaris a technically superior product to Linux? Absolutely. But does it matter? I think the market is already speaking to that.

So, while Schwartz taking the bully pulpit about open source is admirable, what Sun really needs is a reality check. Its support of open code and open standards will continue to be welcomed by the market. But, more importantly, what Sun has always done well is innovate. Like Oracle, Solaris has the features that the top 10% of customers demand. The sooner Sun recognises that — and recognises where its real competition is coming from — the sooner it can concentrate on becoming a real contender once more.

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