An insight into Sun’s *crazy* strategy.

I have been reading a lot of discussion on Sun’s current market position/revenue versus their *mad* strategy. I have simultaneously been working on Java’s history for my book. I thought it might be interesting to post my views on the topic and see what others are thinking. To justify/criticize Sun’s current modus operandi, I will talk a little about their past strategies, and their respective outcomes.

The Past

Most of the people know James Gosling as the father of Java. Only a few know that he was also the lead engineer of Gosmacs (gmacs or Gosling Emacs) and NeWS. Now, I won’t be talking about Gosmacs (which according to some people is/was the reason of some conflict between RMS and Gosling. Phew!)
However, NeWS (Network extensible Window System) is of a little concern, mostly because it was arguably superior to X Window System… and because it FAILED. The most important reason for its failure (and X Window’s success) is that Sun kept it proprietary.
Later on when Sun developed Java, some people, especially the genius Eric Schmidt (then CTO-Sun, now CEO-Google), were aware that keeping Java within enclosed fences will lead to similar devastating results. Not to mention that *7 (for which Java was developed) had already failed and Java was still in search of a viable market.

So what did he do?
He focused on making it as open as possible and tried building a *Java Community*. (Google SoC, IMHO, is also a “win-the-community-and-you-win-everything-else” approach. But then that’s a different topic altogether. 😉 )

Where were we?
Yeah! So he focused on building a Java Community.
Apart from organizing developer conferences like JavaOne, Sun also encouraged user groups (JUGs), which reached over a number of 400 in year 2000 itself. In fact they went a step further with JCP (Java Community Process) to make the development of Java *as open as possible*.
The reality behind all this community building scene was the fact that the direct control remained with Sun (well mostly).

Everything, however, was running smooth; for Sun as well as the Java developers.

“I envy you. But such a thing is not meant to last.”

Persephone, Matrix Reloaded

I guess the above statement is valid for every aspect of human existence.
In early 2004, Jonathan Schwartz, referenced Eric Steven Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and compared JCP to the “Bazaar”, stating that development of Linux was more like a “Cathedral”. I would not expand on it but this was enough to infuriate ESR 🙂

ESR wrote an open letter addressed to Scott McNealy, CEO-Sun, with a subject line “Let Java Go”. He accused Sun on several fronts (for which I’d pursue you to read the letter) and appealed to Open Source Java. A few weeks later RMS wrote an essay on Java Trap and appealed the developers to contribute and use open source projects like GCJ/Gnu Classpath etc. Several other appeals/open letters were published (Apache’s Geir Magnusson Jr., IBM, etc.)

A series of events followed before Sun announced that it will be open sourcing Java. There main concern was Microsoft forking Java and hence, destroying its cross platform compatibility (which shows that they really were clueless on how Open source model works/ can work).
They had no other option than to Open Source the *giant*, and they did it.

The Present

The past unarguably affects, if not defines, the present. Sun’s experience since the NFS days to (forced) Open Sourcing Java days taught/reminded them of their most important lesson.
The Community is fruitful!
Build a community and everything else will follow, sooner or later.

So here they are.
Open sourcing EVERYTHING.
Building Community, and making it mutually encashable. It’s obviously not so profitable for them today, but the future holds immense potential.

The way they have been endorsing and promoting stuff is simply adorable. Even NetBeans has its own *arena*.
Not to mention the, so called, developer conferences organized all over the world in a distributed fashion to reach the most number of developers. I, however, have several concerns regarding them. You may read some of them at Amit’s blog. I hope Sun listens to the plea of developers and improves the quality of these summits.

Another amazing strategy, IMHO, is the blogs that Sun employees post regularly. I have subscribed some of them and it’s really amazing to see that how important role these blogs are playing in binding people. They often link each other’s (Sun Employees, of course) blogs. You can have a look at the Sun-Blogging homepage to get a feel of the number of hits the folks out there are getting. Now even if I read only one of these, I’d get to know about latest developments. I am not sure whether it’s a part of their strategy, but it’s definitely working as a powerful advertising medium.
Yup! I know that employees of other firms write blogs too and probably get bigger number of hits, but I haven’t seen anyone of them making so much of a difference on an organizational level. (Please correct me if I am wrong)

The Future

I am no Nostradamus and I cannot predict future.
All I can say is the future is (mostly) Free & Open. IBM (previously referred Satan) secured its place (with a Halo on head) by contributing to the Apache httpd project and winning the FOSS community. Now it’s Sun’s turn and they are playing pretty well.
Yes, their revenue might be a concern today; but I don’t really see a reason why there future shouldn’t be bright. 🙂

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