Why Sun Failed - unwillingness to adapt
"With Oracle, Sun avoids becoming another Yahoo," headlines Marketwatch.com today. As talks broke down because IBM was unwilling to up its price for Sun Microsystems, Oracle Systems swept in and made a counter-offer that looks sure to acquire the company. Unlike Yahoo - Sun will now disappear. The shareholders will get about 5% of the value Sun was worth a decade ago at its peak. That's a pretty serious value destruction, in any book. And if you don't think this is bad news for the employees and vendors just wait a year and see how many remain part of Oracle. A sale to IBM would have fared no better for investors, employees or vendors.
It was clear Sun wasn't able to survive several years ago. That's why I wrote about the company in my book Create Marketplace Disruption. Because the company was unwilling to allow any internal Disruptions to its Success Formula and any White Space to exist which might transform the company. In the fast paced world of information products, no company can survive if it isn't willing to build an organization that can identify market shifts and change with them.
I was at a Sun analyst conference in 1995 where Chairman McNealy told the analysts "have you seen the explosive growth over at Cisco System? I ask myself, how did we miss that?" And that's when it was clear Sun was in for big, big trouble. He was admitting then that Sun was so focused on its business, so focused on its core, that there was very little effort being expended on evaluating market shifts - which meant opportunities were being missed and Sun would be in big trouble when its "core" business slowed - as happens to all IT product companies. Sun had built its Success Formula selling hardware. Even though the real value Sun created shifted more and more to the software that drove its hardware, which became more and more generic (and less competitive) every year, Sun wouldn't change its strategy or tactics - which supported its identity as a hardware company - its Success Formula. Even though Sun became a leader in Unix operating systems, extensions for networking and accessing lots of data, as well as the creator and developer of Java for network applications because software was incompatible with the Success Formula, the company could not maintain independent software sales and the company failed.
Sort of like Xerox inventing the GUI (graphical user interface), mouse, local area network to connect a PC to a printer, and the laser printer but never capturing any of the PC, printer or desktop publishing market. Just because Xerox (and Sun) invented a lot of what became future growth markets did not insure success, because the slavish dedication to the old Success Formula (in Xerox's case big copiers) kept the company from moving forward with the marketplace.
Instead, Sun Microsystems kept trying to Defend & Extend its old, original Success Formula to the end. Even after several years struggling to sell hardware, Sun refused to change into the software company it needed to become. To unleash this value, Sun had to be acquired by another software company, Oracle, willing to let the hardware go and keep the software - according to the MercuryNews.com "With Oracle's acquisition of Sun, Larry Ellison's empire grows." Scott McNealy wouldn't Disrupt Sun and use White Space to change Sun, so its value deteriorated until it was a cheap buy for someone who could use the software pieces to greater value in another company.
Compare this with Steve Jobs. When Jobs left Apple in disrepute he founded NeXt to be another hardware company - something like a cross between Apple and Sun. But he found the Unix box business tough sledding. So he changed focus to a top application for high powered workstations - graphics - intending to compete with Silicon Graphics (SGI). But as he learned about the market, he realized he was better off developing application software, and he took over leadership of Pixar. He let NeXt die as he focused on high end graphics software at Pixar, only to learn that people weren't as interesed in buying his software as he thought they would be. So he transitioned Pixar into a movie production company making animated full-length features as well as commercials and short subjects. Mr. Jobs went through 3 Success Formulas getting the business right - using Disruptions and White Space to move from a box company to a software company to a movie studio (that also supplied software to box companies). By focusing on future scenarios, obsessing about competitors and Disrupting his approach he kept pushing into White Space. Instead of letting Lock-in keep him pushing a bad idea until it failed, he let White Space evolve the business into something of high value for the marketplace. As a result, Pixar is a viable competitor today - while SGI and Sun Microsystems have failed within a few months of each other.
It's incredibly easy to Defend & Extend your Success Formula, even after the business starts failing. It's easy to remain Locked-in to the original Success Formula and keep working harder and faster to make it a little better or cheaper. But when markets shift, you will fail if you don't realize that longevity requires you change the Success Formula. Where Unix boxes were once what the market wanted (in high volume), shifts in competitive hardware (PC) and software (Linux) products kept sucking the value out of that original Success Formula.
Sun needed to Disrupt its Lock-ins - attack them - in order to open White Space where it could build value for its software products. Where it could learn to sell them instead of force-bundling them with hardware, or giving them away (like Java.) And this is a lesson all companies need to take to heart. If Sun had made these moves it could have preserved much more of its value - even if acquired by someone else. Or it might have been able to survive as a different kind of company. Instead, Sun has failed costing its investors, employees and vendors billions.