IBM’s $7 billion bid for Sun Microsystems marks the endgame for one of the long-standing icons of Silicon Valley. Given how Sun has nearly dropped off the map in recent years, it comes as a bit of a shock that someone thinks it’s worth $7 billion. But you don’t have to go back many years to remember a Sun that just about defined the swagger, cheek and arrogance of Silicon Valley.
When I first encountered Sun in Davos in the early ’90s, it was one of the few major technology companies that came to the Swiss Alps in January. Bill Gates’ annual trek up the mountain was still a few years off, and the Internet stars that came to crowd the Congress Center didn’t even exist yet. So Sun was quite an attraction.
Sun had a sharp CTO, Eric Schmidt (whatever happened to him?), the always-thoughtful John Gage, and sometimes-scary Bill Joy. Occasionally their loud-mouthed CEO Scott McNealy would grace Davos with his presence. For a journalist, McNealy was always great value. He loved to make fun of Sun’s competitors, and had particular scorn for Microsoft. That feistyness, verging on boorishness, permeated the company. As Dan Lyons points out, one executive crowed in 1999 that IBM’s problem wasn’t Y2K, it was S-U-N. For those willing to dig, Sun’s verbal aggressiveness outran their actual achievements. Few, myself included, really did the digging in those days.
Sun’s flair for the dramatic was best illustrated in the Davos context by the brainstorm of renting a picturesque chalet directly across the street from the Congress Center. There were plenty of bigger companies in Davos, and there were certainly more lavish party hosts. But Sun grabbed the best, most visible spot, with a dash of gemütlichkeit.
As the ’90s wore on, however, something began to go amiss, to my mind, with Sun. The engaging Schmidt had jumped ship for Novell. McNealy rose to the grander role of chairman, the post he still holds, yielding to Ed Zander. That knocked the stuffing out of the Sun bubble. Zander might have been a great sales and marketing guy, but he had neither McNealy’s savage wit nor the geeky smarts of other Sun folk. He was just another slick executive who was a pain to put on a panel, since he had nothing original to say. (To my amazement, Zander kept Sun’s bubble inflated enough to land the top spot at Motorola, which he steadily ran into the ground.)
There were, of course, some real strengths to Sun, significant enough that it’s still worth a multi-billion price tag. Its swagger and style, however, are long gone.