Can Oracle help Sun get its groove back?

I have a certain soft-spot for Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, who is now buying Sun Microsystems for $7.4b. By many accounts Ellison is a mercurial character, but I’ll say one thing for him: he appreciates design.

Well, I have a rather self-centered reason for saying that. Shortly before I left Sun in 1996, the high-end servers I’d been the lead industrial designer on were launched. There was an event at Moscone Center, at which Ellison joined then-Sun CEO Scott McNealy on stage. He walked out in his shiny gray Italian suit, and the first thing he said, before launching into his canned speech was, “Can I just take a minute to say that these are the best looking servers I’ve ever seen. Usually they look like crap.” (Or words to that effect).

In fact, Oracle was one of the places we visited when doing competitive research for that generation of servers. It’s not obvious from the outside, but whole floors of Oracle’s iconic buildings on Redwood Shores in Silicon Valley are filled with servers from every company around, used for testing their software on different platforms. It was like going to the zoo - every species in one place.

It’s unclear at this point how the Oracle/Sun combination will be run, but it sounds like Sun will stay quite independent. I hope that with this new partner they can renew their vision though, which in recent years has been by turns absent or overly techno-centric (i.e. only open-source geeks cared).

Three years ago almost to the day when Scott McNealy announced his stepping back from CEO, I wrote

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.

To my mind, Sun has not been able to recapture its mojo, and the stagnant stock price and poor earnings reflect that. Let’s hope that it doesn’t go the way of Digital, Silicon Graphics or Tandem, and, unlike those companies, remake itself with a renewed vigor and purpose.