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Sun wants to be the Badger in Web 2.0

Why this isn't a good idea

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Comment Sun Microsystem's President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Schwartz wants to ally the company with one of the year's biggest marketing flops, "Web 2.0".

"Sun will be the Dot in Web 2.0," he wrote this week. "No shame in saying it."

We're not so sure about that.

Warning: Badgers

Judging by a recent survey of ours, many of Sun's customers loathe the buzzword and all it represents with a passion and a rare degree of unanimity. Readers in financial services were particularly prominent. Jonathan, if you peel away the blog insulator covering your ears, you'll be able to hear it too.

It's doubly unfortunate, when Sun has spent most of the Noughties trying to persuade institutional investors and financial analysts that it's going to be around for the long term, to be identifying with an ephemeral fad.

And thirdly, it's actually quite tragic that Sun has, in its Labs, already identified where the many of the really hard problems in technology need to be fixed, and is devising fixes that could bring long-term paybacks.

Let's take each in turn.

Abandon SOAP All Ye Who Enter

What do the people who matter really think of Web 2.0? Our poll gives us plenty of clues.

Recently we gave up trying to keeping track of Tim O'Reilly's many attempts to define "Web 2.0", a buzzword he helped invent to plug one of his conferences. His most recent definition, "... A Huge, Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld", certainly had a familiar ring to it, but it suggested that even Tim had given up too, and was content to count the $1.6 million we estimate that his Web 2.0 conference grossed.

As we suggested at the time, if you can persuade people to hand over this amount of money without being able to explain why, your true vocation is starting your own bogus religion: 'The Temple of Collective Intelligence', perhaps, or 'The Church of the Hive Mind'.

So when Register readers, who aren't so easily parted from their money, wrote in their own suggestions, we learned a great deal from the answers.

Over 600 responded in 24 hours, with Sun customers particularly well represented in the financial services sector. Only two souls had anything nice to say about it.

12 per cent suggested Web 2.0 was made "of Badger's Paws", while other submissions included "Web 2.0 is pain in a bottle", "Web 2.0 is complete crap, hype and bullshit and other self absorbed West Coast navel gazing pastimes," and "Web 2.0 is a great big shit sandwich, and we're all going to have to take a bite".

Even the blog kids loathe "Web 2.0", with joke sites and hate blogs springing up faster than we can keep track of them.

(Sample: How to tell if your office Secret Santa is really a Web 2.0 cultist: You receive a beautifully wrapped gift-box containing nothing but an I.O.U.)

So it's rather like Jonathan saying Sun wants to be the "New" in the "New Coke", or the 'C' in the "Sinclair C5". We have heard better marketing wheezes.

OK, then - it's silly and faddish - but so what? Aren't tech executives always leaping on the latest bandwagon? Indeed so, but they usually choose to do so when it plays to the company's strengths, and not its weaknesses. And before jumping, it's prudent to check if the bandwagon has any wheels.

The "Web 2.0" association really hurts Sun in several ways.

A Silicon Valley investor with more than eight figures to invest in technology explained it to me very succinctly. He can't say "Web 2.0" without sneering either. He views it as an expensive, but mostly harmless recruitment game by Google and Yahoo! (the only two likely buyers for webby startups, with Diller and Murdoch the other two). But he's standing back because the serious money comes not from webification, but from solving the really difficult computer problems,

"... and the Web 2.0 stuff doesn't solve anything. And the really difficult problems need to be solved."

And of course there's so much we ought to do that can't yet.

In its Labs, Sun does work like the Celeste file system and HPCS projects (we described both of them here) that fit this description.

That's because years ago, Sun executives identified key areas of growth in the future, such as low field electronics, and ubiquitous wireless, and began to plan the kind of infrastructure that was needed to support them. You'll note webification wasn't one of them.

When Scott McNealy was Sun's most visible public spokesman, he never failed to stress that Sun was a systems company. That's a values message that's now been lost. If you read the comments from our poll, one reason for the strong enmity towards the "Web 2.0" hype is that presentation layer people should be involved in building systems.

A company executive needs to keep the ship focused on what it does best.

The blogging fad has proved very divisive inside Sun, we're told, pitting colleague against colleague. Nothing illustrates this better than this hymn to corporate toadying written by a Sun hire.

[WARNING: Do not read within four hours of ingesting food.]

We can excuse a simple slip of the tongue, but not a whole slurp.

This is the latest in a string of strange marketing decisions that also see Sun playing to its weaknesses, rather than its strengths. Is Sun about "sharing"? Well, in that case it will never be able to compete with IBM, whose patent arsenal goes back fifty years, and happily shovels another load out into the open source community whenever it's convenient to do so.

Sun has always been the small scrappy competitor in comparison to giants like HP and IBM it takes on. It's always had to punch above its weight.

Incredibly Schwartz, with his passion for emphemera, makes Sun seem so much smaller than it really is. ®

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