Why Isn't Sun the Apple of the Enterprise?

sun_e4500.jpgToday Scott McNealy stepped down after 22 years as CEO of Sun Microsystems, with Jonathan Schwartz taking over. Though expected, it was sad to hear, as my first job out of college was in the industrial design group at Sun (the product shown here is one I worked on). It was a terrific place to work, and I continue to apply the lessons I learned there on a daily basis.

He embodies Sun in the way that Bill Gates does Microsoft and Steve Jobs does Apple. And you have to love a CEO who enters into an annual company all-hands at the Shoreline Pavilion by rappelling from the roof dressed in a Batman costume. That and his irrepressible urge to take hilarious jabs at the competition.

But Sun has always been a hot and cold company. It's at its best when it has a clear vision, as it did in the early to mid-nineties, which then propelled it on to dot-com driven success. Though as the bust came on, it became clear that, as with many companies, the open spigot of customer cash had been hiding poor management and a lack of vision. Sun had got sloppy.

Clearly some drastic things needed to be done, and McNealy wasn't quite able to pull them off. My guess is that Schwartz will trim a lot of the hardware development, where Sun is struggling, and focus on Java, software and services such as utility computing.

A question that has long plagued me is: why isn't Sun the Apple of the enterprise?

Consider:

  • It controls the OS
  • It controls the hardware (even more than Apple does)
  • It controls a lot of application development
  • It has a knack for creating infrastructure and platforms such as Java
So why hasn't Sun been able to parlay this enormous level of integration into an unprecedented level of design and experience quality at all points?

Certainly the enterprise market is very different than the consumer market, and ostensibly has less concern over aesthetics. However, enterprises are at least as concerned about costs, and the integration of experience provided by design can eke out savings in downtime, speed, and overall work efficiency. When I was at Sun I headed industrial design for their larger server systems, and believe me, every second counts when diagnosing a downed server. We spent a lot of time trying to make them as efficient to work on as possible.

Beyond that, the lack of real attention to design at Sun meant that their hardware and software were not differentiated enough from lower cost, more commodity offerings. This isn't to say that there aren't people at Sun who don't care about design and who don't work hard to push for it - they certainly are there. But upper management, and McNealy in particular, have always paid it lip service, if that. They see it as a frivolous, surface activity, not something that needs to be deeply ingrained in the culture and the process and the products if it is to succeed well.

Now this is true of a lot of engineering/technology companies. It's just particularly sad in Sun's case because the extent of the opportunity was so large. They could have been the prestigious brand that set the benchmark for everyone else to follow, and which inspired fanatical customer loyalty because of their reputation for quality and attention to detail. Just like Apple.