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Sun: Let us now praise the ponytail

Could you have done better than McNealy and Schwartz?

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The end of Sun Microsystems as an independent systems company has been met with a mixture of "I told you so" and "good riddance". But as someone who spent plenty of time at Sun over the past decade - including the dot com years - I wonder if anyone could have played a better hand?

Schwartz and McNealy succeeded in stemming the haemorrhage of Sun's user base, preserving most of the company's R&D investment, and ultimately delivering a handsome deal to shareholders. The latter is what CEOs are actually paid to do - not clean your car, or cure malaria.

(Or as our Ashlee put it here, "replace data centers with jellybeans and justice").

Giving McSchwartz credit isn't always easy. Would a grown man, in full possession of his marbles, really write "If the Information Age was passive, the Participation Age is active" and give the blog post the name "inevitability"? Hubris beckons. For any reporter, it was hard to keep up with Sun's desktop strategy. In a mere three years, it shifted from emphasising the thin-client SunRays, to its own Linux ("Java Desktop System"), to giving away a souped-up Solaris for x86.

(In 2002, Sun had axed Solaris for Intel and it took pressure from customers to revive it. By 2005, it was a key strategic asset again, and today, you can buy Dell Poweredge servers with Solaris).

My esteemed colleague Chris Mellor thinks Sun could never decide which company it wanted to be - a proprietary SPARC vendor or a commodity Intel vendor. But that dilemma has faced not only Sun, but every proprietary hardware company, for every day since the ascendence of Intel in the early 1990s. (Remember that even Microsoft didn't bet the farm on Intel, making sure NT ran on MIPS, Alpha and PowerPC chips, all of which were superior at the time, and looked like they would endure). It's really the same challenge Sun posed to minicomputer makers in the 1980s with Unix. Most of those competitors were sold for scrap, not $7.4bn. The mighty SGI fetched just $25m recently.

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