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Hanged in a Fortnight?

Samuel Johnson said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." While Sun's current situation may not be dire enough to be considered analogous to facing the hangman's rope, it is clear that economic distress is forcing Sun to change its mindset. Whether that change is a concentrating focus or a casting about for a lifeline is subject to debate.

Now I won't speculate about the likelihood of Sun being acquired by IBM, HP, Dell, or anyone else, other than to say that Scott McNealy's egotism plus Sun's $5.7 billion cash reserve would certainly make such a takeover attempt entertaining. Taking away a favorite toy from a petulant child can be difficult enough, but if that child can afford a phalanx of lawyers and other corporate hatchet men, the attempt can rival the best overblown soap opera on TV.

I will, however, remark upon recent events.

The telecommunications industry was hit particularly hard by the bursting (aka the dot bomb) of the tech bubble, and the telecom industry was an important buyer of Sun's servers. Sun's revenue stream from hardware also continues to shrink as a result of a corporate shift to cheaper Intel boxes and Linux, so Sun is placing greater marketing emphasis on software.

At this year's JavaOne, Sun launched a campaign to increase public recognition of the Java brand name. "Java Powered" is to become the catchphrase for this campaign, which includes a redesigned Java cup (with bolder strokes) and redesigned Web sites (java.net for developers, java.com for the public). Sun and its Java partners have unleashed a $500 million advertising onslaught to promote "Java Powered" with Christina Aguilera as its eye candy. All well and good since, as I wrote in a previous editorial, I felt that Sun was relying too heavily on its technology laurels and not being effective in marketing to the general public (I used the success of the WiFi branding as an example of the desired goal). Although I do think this Christina business may have gone too far with the "Christina Everywhere" J2ME application touted on Sun's page (www.java.com/en/explore/mobile/christina.jsp) and available from Nextel. Not exactly what I had in mind when writing MIDlets for Nextel, but then maybe that explains why I haven't retired on my MIDlet licensing fees.

Now comes the Java Enterprise System (née Project Orion) and the Java Desktop System, and I'm perplexed. First realize that neither one is just Java; rather, multiple technologies are bundled under the Java moniker, presumably because Java has the widest public recognition. Of course, this may only matter to us techies because we know what Java really is, but I can't help but wonder whether imprecision here reflects a lack of cohesion in the overall effort.

One rationale for Orion, as stated at www.sun.com/2003-0930/feature/, is that "customers are tired of…acquiring enterprise infrastructure software from multiple vendors." Am I the only one who sees some irony in this statement from a company whose "write once, run anywhere" and "the network is the computer" philosophies embrace heterogeneous systems? Isn't the hegemony of a singlesource solution what we're trying to avoid vis-à-vis Microsoft?

The Java Desktop System is a pseudo- MS Windows and Office without the MS. While I admire Sun's dogged attempt to provide an alternative to MS, what does it have to do with Java? Is there a realistic chance of wresting the desktop from Microsoft, or is this largely fueled by McNealy's antagonism toward all things Bill?

Now I'm not expecting Sun to be eclipsed - they still have superior technology, and they're pointed in the right direction (in my humble opinion) in branding and promoting Java technology. In the J2ME arena, in particular, they have an especially strong position, as evidenced by the continued increase in the number of hardware platforms and network providers supporting J2ME. A revival of the tech economy and, in particular, the telecommunications industry, could make all other factors largely irrelevant by increasing the demand for both network servers and enterprise (J2EE) and mobile (J2ME) software. I just wish Sun's marketing strategy seemed more coherent to me. But then I'm an engineer, and I've learned that marketing employs a different logic than the logic I understand.

Author Bio
Glen Cordrey is a software architect working in the Washington, DC, area. He's been using Java for five years, developing both J2EE and J2ME applications for commercial customers. [email protected]

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