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Can Sun get posh with Bechs?

Time to end the waiting game

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Analysis Like us, you might find it tough to take a company with "sharing" as its motto too seriously. Sun Microsystems, however, put on a very serious scowl at a Media Summit held at its Menlo Park offices last week. "Grrrr" was the message doled out by Sun staffers in between servings of lunch and birthday cake.

Summits often consist of dignitaries or politicos who try and push some new agenda forward while dissecting it from all possible angles. The Sun thing wasn't that kind of summit. Instead, it consisted of a lot of men and about two women, cramming their laptops full of notes, as a cavalcade of Sun executives made their way across the white board. CEO Scott McNealy, COO Jonathan Schwartz, GURU Andy Bechtolsheim, CTO Greg Papadopoulos, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Fortune or Forbes - all there. Our invitation to the shindig only arrived two days before the actual event, which must have been a planning oversight. The other reporters had elegant Java cards outfitted with their very own names. We received but a humble guest pass. Life is hard at the top, and we've refused to let Sun's mind games get to us.

Along with lacking politicos, the summit failed to establish a new agenda. The Sun Brass stood firm behind two key positions. The company will not, as Wall Street demands, cut back on research and development spending or fire a bunch of workers. In addition, it will not back down from a strategy that - at times - addresses the future needs of customers more than their present concerns.

In case you can't tell, we're winding up for a "State of Sun" story - something we haven't done in quite awhile.

Let's start with the basics.

"We need some revenue growth," McNealy said, during the media brainwashing. "There is no question about that."

While Sun doesn't always present this as priority number one to the public, we think it ought to more often.

For the last few years, Sun has pitched a turnaround story full of vision but lacking product. It, for example, bought chip start-up Afara WebSystems back in 2002 to create a revolutionary line of processors meant to power a revolutionary line of servers. Then, it brought co-founder Andy Bechtolsheim back with the purchase of Kealia in 2004, paving the way for some revolutionary new Opteron-based gear. Along the way, Sun picked up a host of software start-ups, did a major overhaul of Solaris with Solaris 10, spent a fortune on StorageTek and pursued the whole open sourcing of heaps of code with vigor.

It's only in the last couple of months that Sun has delivered actual product to make use of all this fanfare. It turned the Afara work into the UltraSPARC T1 processor; it rolled out a first run of Opteron boxes; it boosted the performance of the UltraSPARC IV+ chip; it signed a price reduction deal with Oracle to stop immense database defections; it slapped a "free" sticker on every box of software; it got the StorageTek gear contributing to the bottom line; it finished refining most of the Solaris 10 features; and it got the ball rolling with interest around OpenSolaris.

The release of all this kit puts enormous pressure on Sun.

The Sun faithful in the analyst and press community have waited patiently to see a bottom line improvement. Yes, Sun generates cash every quarter and stashes the money away in its vault. Such gains, however, do not come close to offsetting constant losses in both revenue and market share.

The most faithful of the Sun faithful don't expect a huge revenue spike anytime soon. They do, however, expect the fresh lines of hardware and software to push Sun into the black on a consistent basis. A few cents per share in earnings per quarter will do for the moment.

Sun's Unix business continues to decline with it falling from first in revenue to third in 2005, which hurts the company's chances of building a solid earnings story. However, its x86 business continues to grow at pace and software shows signs of hope at times. Given that Sun has been sitting near break even in recent quarters, profits in the coming months are a very real possibility.

If Sun can't move into the black with the revamped product line, then it faces a much longer term turnaround story - one that will put its most ardent supporters to the test.

"Now it is up to us to execute and deliver revenue growth," McNealy said.

Damn straight.

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