Sun Microsystems: The Sunrise and Sunset of a Silicon Valley Icon

Posted by Michael Pinto on Mar 8, 2010 in Tech |

The above heartbreaking video shows the founders of Sun Microsystems talking about the founding of the company which lasted from 1982 until they were acquired by Oracle in January of this year. As sad as I am for the company, the ability for any tech firm to to last for twenty eight years is an amazing feat. Their golden age for for me was in the late 80s when they dominated the workstation market.

Sun SparcStation 5 from 1994

The Sun SparcStation 5 from 1994: Many of these workstations were shaped like a pizza box unlike so many upright standing PCs of that era.

During that era if you were a computer nerd owning a Sun was your ultimate dream. The workstations of that era were a cut above the PCs and Macs that everyone owned, so having a Sun on your desktop would be like driving a sports car while everyone else was driving a second hand automobile. Their computers were powered by their own chips called the SPARC and they used Unix with a very user friendly operating system called SunOS which featured windows years before Windows.


This is what OpenWindows on a Sun looked like in 1990 — keep in mind that this is years before Windows 95.

In fact in many ways the Sun workstations of that era were similar to the Macs of today. In fact for years there were always rumors that Sun would merge with Apple which was the ultimate silicon valley dream team as Sun dominated the high end while Apple always did so well with consumers.

On the hardware front part of what killed Sun was that Intel kept getting better at chip making. The R&D required to keep up in that market was a huge investment and sadly Sun couldn’t keep up. However unlike so many other hardware companies that bit the dust Sun did two things right which insured their survival: They acquired quite a few innovative companies along the way and they were one of the first companies to embrace open source.

The Java Logo

In the early 90s while their hardware was doing well instead of resting on their laurels they created the Java platform, which helped the company survive after the hardware started to fade. Java exploded in popularity as the internet started to to take off in the late 90s. And add to that in 1999 they acquired StarOffice which is an open source take on Microsoft Office. And their final act was to purchase the developer of the MySQL database in 2008.

My own guess is that if they didn’t have the hardware legacy or the right CEO that they might have kept going. But by the end of the last decade there seemed to be no reason that you’d want to buy Sun hardware which was their cash cow. In the early phase of the internet Sun servers powered countless websites, but alas many companies running Intel products moved into that space.


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