Tim Bray asks an interesting question in The Back Door.

I remember a time where a Sun workstation was possibly the coolest thing to have on a programmer’s desk. Much of the most interesting new software and research was done on Sun boxes. Techies loved Sun and pulled Sun hardware in the back door whenever possible. Over time the Sun reputation percolated up to the front office, just in time for the 1990’s boom and .com bubble. Somewhere in there Sun became a well-respected vendor coming in the front door, and did terrific business.

Sun was once cool because if you wanted cutting edge workstation techology (bitmapped graphic displays, fast CPUs) there just wasn’t any real competition. BSD Unix had become nearly a standard in the academic and research communities, and Sun had a superbe version of BSD Unix. The fact that Sun eventually made pretty decent servers allowed the techies to stay with the company they loved, and push Sun hardware to the front office.

But as Tim’s note brings to mind - Sun is no longer cool. At one point in time I would have been thrilled to have a Sun box on my desk. Now - it simply seems like too much of a bother.

There are two obvious points where Sun is off-target. First, the Solaris version of Unix has become an off-brand, as for all practical purposes Linux has become the standard version of Unix. I know this statement freaks out long-time Solaris fans, but walk in the “back door” and you will find MS Windows and Linux. Pretty much everything else is foisted on the techies by the front office or out-of-touch old fogies. Who wants to learn a non-standard version of Unix?

( My teenage son would if given the opportunity point out the that I am one of the old guys, but that is just his opinion ).

The second point is Sun hardware at the desktop - is just not interesting. Generic x86 and Apple PCs are entirely sufficient, and a lot less hassle.

What would make Sun cool once again? Well, I would say that the Sun folks got handed an asteriod-size hint at JavaOne. From all reports Apple laptops outnumbered pretty much everything else! Apple laptops run Unix - a BSD Unix descendent oddly enough, and admittedly a “non-standard” OS to all those folks accustomed to Windows and Linux. Apple more than made up for the difference by providing a superbe complete package.

Warning - a herd of scared cows is headed for slaughter in the following….

For years (decades?) an Apple-Sun alliance has almost seemed to make sense. Both companies produce really very nice hardware. The bottom of Sun’s range pretty much marked the top of Apple’s range. They are even both located in the same general area. We may have finally reached the time where the “almost” part goes away.

The general notion is for Sun to lock in a clean upscale path from the coolest desktop around.

Now this presents some internal stumbling blocks for the Sun folks. The Sparc CPU will have to fade away. We don’t need Sparc on the desktop, and eventually only legacy customers will be interested in Sparc on the server. This means that Sun adopts use of IBM’s PowerPC CPU, starting from the desktop and eventually moving up to the server. I know that just this alone will cause a great deal in internal, er “discussion” within Sun.

Oooo … interesting side-thought. Given the current technology landscape Sun could gracefully bow out of the single-CPU performance race with Sparc. If you are not (on the server) especially interested in single CPU performance, that leaves the Sparc folk with just shrinking the chip (lowering cost and power use) as new fab technologies come along. Not much need for new architecture. Sun could well support their legacy Sparc customers with a much smaller R&D outlay.

There is a wildcard in the JDS desktop and Opteron server combo. Offering a good upscale server path to Linux crowd is a good bet. As to the Java Desktop - I just don’t know. Sun is historically good at coming up with some really excellent ideas, but somehow when it comes to desktop software fails to put out really polished implementations. Don’t know why this is - probably something in the company mindset.

As to open-source Solaris - I really want to care about this. Probably this has something to do with the fact at one point I would have killed for a Sparcstation 1 (figuratively speaking). I’ve even downloaded Solaris x86 ISOs, burned CDs … but just can’t quite see reason to spend time with Solaris.