End of an era

It wasn’t unexpected but there was still something jarring about typing in Sun.com earlier this week and finding myself on the Oracle website. The deal in which Oracle acquired Sun had been in the pipeline for months but this brought home, with finality, that this was indeed the end of an era.

Founded in 1982 Sun Microsystems was not always the easiest company to figure out and most consumers had little knowledge of what the company did because it didn’t produce the kind of hardware they could put on their desk.
But it’s role in the growth of the Internet was pivotal. Its gigantic servers sat in datacentres behind thick walls and ran most of the Internet at one point and most scientific research organisations relied on its workstations to crunch the really big numbers. It was great technology for its time but it gradually faced a growing threat from x86 class machines that could do the same for less if they were tethered together right.

Perhaps Sun’s biggest contribution, however, was Java. The cross-platform programming language redefined so much of the software world. In the early days it was “cool” to do Java. Today it is an integral part of the Internet as well as being a crucial element of products from everyone from IBM to Oracle. Java also plays an important role on a new generation of devices: mobile smartphones that run Java applications. The contribution made by Java, created by James Gosling, to today’s software world is incalculable.

Personally, it is Sun’s involvement with open source software that will be most missed. Having bought StarOffice back in 1999 from German company StarDivision, Sun in 2000 released the code for StarOffice under an open source licence and the name OpenOffice.org. Over the years community and Sun developers pushed OpenOffice.org closer and closer to its goal of being a fully free alternative to proprietary office suites, something that it has largely achieved.

Sun also open sourced its own high-end operating system, Solaris, releasing OpenSolaris in stages over the course of the 2000s. Over the course of the late decade Sun deepened its interests in open source, buying MySQL, VirtualBox and releasing many others. In the end, however, Sun never really worked out how to make open source work for it and many of its open source acquisitions were just part of the company’s desperate attempts to find a new direction and a new place in the changed world of technology.

Floundering somewhat, Sun made many peculiar decisions in the last few years of its life. There was the $1 billion it paid for MySQL, the peculiar foray in the late 2000s into the “personal web server” market and the frequent flirtations with creating its own Linux distribution, to name just a few.

Perhaps they wouldn’t have seemed so peculiar if they had rejuvenated the company, but they didn’t and in the end one could never be sure if it was because the market wasn’t ready for these or if Sun really didn’t have its heart in any of these ventures.

In the end it was obvious. Sun needed a way out and Oracle was the way. The technology world, and particularly the open source world, is poorer for it.

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End of an era