Back in early 1995, when Sun Microsystems was just another Unix into a household word. There's one man behind that effort - and it's not who you might think. workstation company and Silicon Graphics was riding high in the stock market and the public eye, a joke made the email rounds at SGI. 'This bulletin just for Sun,' the message read. It continued: 'Sun CEO Scott McNealy regrets to say he has been mistaken. He now realises the network is the network and the computer is the computer.'
Then Sun released Java, a technology designed to allow the widespread deployment of applets over the grandest of networks - the internet. By year's end, Sun's stock price tripled; SGI's stock turned south. Never one to suffer fools gladly, McNealy immediately took to joking about the plight of SGI.
But McNealy might learn from SGI's troubles. For one, Wall Street's attention span is notoriously short. For another, hype is not a business model.
After its golden launch, Sun's Java pitch is starting to get old and McNealy is beginning to sound rather brassy. Beyond the relatively meagre revenue garnered from providing programming tools, Sun doesn't make any money directly from Java, and now half of Java developers are sceptical of the 'write once, run anywhere' promise, according to a recent Zona Research report. Then there's the lawsuit - a messy shouting match between Sun and Microsoft that has left developers in limbo.
Has Java outgrown its usefulness for Sun, then? Is it destined for the obscurity of the average programming language? Answers may depend on Sun's ability to meet development commitments. But at least as important is its marketing, which has always been Java's strong point. Such duties fall not on McNealy, though, but on someone much less of a household name - Anil Gadre.
That Gadre, VP of corporate marketing and marketing council chairman, remains obscure, even in technology circles, matters little. The door of his corner office - the rarest of perks in Silicon Valley - bespeaks his importance within the company. Camped in Building 10 of Sun's Menlo Park Campus, a fortress-like structure of connected buildings on the former wetland of the San Francisco Bay, Gadre is surrounded by evidence of Sun's recent growth.
There isn't a single parking space in the acres of lots surrounding the campus. Inside, every surface is the colour of the Sun logo. And while the colour is blue, the attitude is pure Java. 'It's JavaSoft's role to continue to develop the technology,' Gadre explains. 'My challenge is to take the technology and make it into a big idea - to give it coherence so that people understand the Java miracle,' he adds.
Java miracle? Yes, that's what Gadre calls it. He believes his message but he speaks quietly - without the bravado normally associated with a Sun executive.
Gadre is a small man, too busy to match his socks to his shoes, but he can talk Java all day. One employee calls him 'a marketing genius' for his role in pushing Java - a remarkably successful affair given the arcane nature of the technology. Yet Gadre quotes McNealy more than speaking his own vision. In fact, he's so good at promoting others that he's never been interviewed for a profile before.
Back in pre-Java days, Gadre spent much of his time figuring out how to make Sun a household word. 'Three years ago, we were the great little Unix company,' he says. 'But I knew we'd have to create a broader awareness. I was driving home one day and thought, "what can we do to get Scott on Vanity Fair?" The big trick wasn't Fortune or Forbes. We needed to get Scott recognised and in speaking venues. People would say I was nuts.'
Java allowed Gadre to succeed beyond his wildest expectations. Suddenly he found himself with a charismatic leader and a charismatic technology.
He ran with both. And although McNealy has yet to make Vanity Fair's cover, he has been featured inside the magazine two years straight. 'We just couldn't believe it the first time we got into Newsweek,' Gadre says. 'Java was the key to propelling us into the big time.'
That's because, more than a technology, Java has been used as a marketing tool. By hammering home Java's origin and driving development, Sun would benefit from association via increased hardware sales. After all, what better server to run Java than one manufactured by the company that created it? The plan has worked brilliantly.
Market research firm IDC cites growth in sales of Sun's Solaris operating system at 40 per cent last year, while the Unix market as a whole jumped only 15 per cent.
Yet despite doubts over whether Sun is trying to do too much with Java, McNealy pushed on, attempt-ing to use it as a piece de resistance in the fight against what he repeatedly refers to as 'the dark side'.
'We were trying to get it down to a Coke versus Pepsi kind of war,' Gadre explains. 'We were saying: "Hey, there's a better tasting drink out there.
And by the way, it's better for you all round".'
This has put Sun in the spotlight more than any other strategy could have. 'If you look at Java from a pure revenue standpoint, it has a low impact for Sun,' says Stan Dolberg, analyst at Forrester Research. 'But Java makes Sun a high-profile player, when a couple of years ago it was just a niche box-pusher.'
There is every evidence that Sun's glory ride is drawing to a close.
For all the attention Java has garnered, Sun has remained a hardware company using Java to increase box sales, and has given Wall Street a higher priority than developers. The upside to the strategy is clear.
The downside is only now becoming evident. In two years, Microsoft has become the dominant provider of Java tools, and it has the best implementation of the Java virtual machine. Sun's response has been little more than foot stamping, and more marketing (the '100 per cent Pure Java' campaign), followed by litigation.
Now even developers - many of which bought into anti-Microsoft positioning - are becoming disenchanted. A November 1997 survey of 151 Java developers by Portland, Oregon-based Marketing Decisions found that two-thirds of those surveyed had scaled back or halted Java development. Most cited frustration with the product and lack of portability, despite the 'write once, run anywhere' claims. Even Sun's allies are asking Sun to quit marketing Java so hard, at least until it can deliver on promises made.
'Sun is communicating to the world that it will be able to deliver Java everywhere - from the credit card to the mainframe,' says David Gee, program director for IBM's Java Marketing Group. 'That's simply not the case.
We end up with a huge gap between what Java is today and what Sun says it is.'
McNealy, too, is losing his effectiveness. He's beginning to sound two-dimensional, to the point of Fortune referring to him as a comic strip superhero, Java Man. History proves that a 'Kill Microsoft' message works fine in the short term, but does nothing in the long run.
Corel - burned by adopting Java too early - was forced to pull its Java-based Corel Office Suite because of lack of support. It has decided to wait for the next release of the Java development kit in June before doing any more serious Java work. 'It's great to say you're going to beat Microsoft,' says Paul Skillen, Corel VP of engineering, 'but to do that, you need something realistic you can plunk down on a customer's desk that offers something new. Sun is making progress, but we'd like to urge it to stay focused on offering IT managers something that works.'
Microsoft claims it saw the disenchantment coming. Its internet platform product manager Joe Herman says, 'A lot of companies try to position themselves as the company that's going to take on Microsoft. Then they find it backfires when they focus too much on Microsoft and not enough on customers. Six months ago, Sun was given a lot of exposure from looking like a competitor to Microsoft. We're beginning to see that customers are frustrated by a technology that's over-promised and under-delivered.'
Microsoft's position actually sounds like what other Java partners are saying. For example, IBM. 'Java is not a replacement for Windows,' says Gee, bluntly. 'And we're not engaging in any mudslinging against Microsoft.
IBM is one of Microsoft's largest customers. We don't see this as a religious war.
That's the difference between our view and Sun's view.'
'Where Sun's lead gets difficult to follow is on "Microsoft as the dark side",' agrees Peter van de Graaf, director of product management for eSuite, Lotus' Java-based office applications suite. 'All that noise has confused people. It has confused the press. It has caused angst across the board. Customers get tired of it. The way to succeed is to have a mature product, not a holy war against Microsoft.'
So can Sun change its marketing message? Well, this is easier said than done. Sun's positioning, thus far, has been so stark, and McNealy's disdain for Microsoft so genuine, that changing the message makes the company sound erratic when its actions portray something else entirely.
For example, Gadre points to an initiative declared last year to deliver products that interoperate with Microsoft's, and to two recent product launches reflecting this - SunLink and the Enterprise 450 server. 'Rather than saying "don't buy Microsoft", we are now saying "we understand why you might, and here's how",' he explains. 'We're trying to change the message by offering improved connectivity. The Microsoft customer is someone we really want to be friends with. We've toned down our rhetoric. I take home a pile of press clippings every night and read them. A lot of stories are residual noise from long ago.'
Perhaps. But more likely they're aftershocks of the Sun suit against Microsoft, which was filed in October last year. No doubt, any progress Gadre might have made softening Sun's Microsoft stance was drowned by that suit.
Microsoft calls the lawsuit 'an act of desperation by a company that is considered to be an also-ran in Java tools' (Sun is fourth in the market, behind Microsoft, IBM and Symantec). 'We've become the leading provider of Java,' Herman says. 'That's what precipitated the lawsuit. Typically, companies don't file lawsuits if they are able to compete in the marketplace.'
In fact, the lawsuit has provided Sun with a windfall of new press coverage - a nice fringe benefit no matter the outcome of the suit itself. 'The lawsuit is a fabulous way to keep Java in the world's eye,' says an observer.
'It's a testimony to how precious Java is against the evil Microsoft forces.
'But look at the nature of Sun's complaint. It's limited to specific wording of the contract. It's not betting the farm on something that won't work out. If Sun loses, Java is still Java. But if Sun wins, it's huge.'
Gadre balks at suggestions that the lawsuit is a stunt, however. Lawsuits are no fun - the good publicity Sun received was a side effect of efforts to keep Java from splintering. He also repeats his assertion that McNealy has toned down his Microsoft bashing.
'Scott has added a lot more to his speeches about what you can do with Sun, and what our business is all about,' he says.
'But I think, to some extent, that if Scott is not outrageous, he won't get quoted. It's a balancing act. I'm the sanity checker, the person who tells him, "yes, that's funny, that's intriguing, but it doesn't tell the company story." Most of the time he listens,' Gadre says.
So what about McNealy's outburst in November 1997 at the technology conference in Berlin, where he told attendees to flood Gates' email box because of Microsoft's bastardising of Java, and urged them to stop using Microsoft development tools? Gadre is circumspect in his criticism. 'The amazing thing about Scott is he starts talking and sound-bites just fall out.
Sometimes you wish they wouldn't, but when you have someone like Scott, I'm not sure how much you want to tamper,' Gadre says.
At the same time, Gadre is aware of the shrillness of a Microsoft shouting match - that it disillusions developers and worries partners. But there seems little he can do about it. The one time Gadre is left speechless in the interview is when asked to cite an example of having been able to change McNealy's mind - ever.
Instead of tampering with McNealy's message then, Gadre plans to expand the number of personalities associated with Java implementations as a way to instill confidence and curb the perception of Java as a bleeding-edge technology. Last fall's Road to Javatour of 40 cities worldwide was part of that effort.
'We're starting to have customers tell the story,' says Gadre, 'and we would love the industry to view this company as more than just Scott.
From a PR standpoint, we're actively trying to feature Ed Zander (president of Sun Computer) and Janpieter Scheerder (SunSoft president) as well as 10 to 15 others. The market ought to start knowing more than one or two faces at Sun.'
Most analysts feel that this is not about the messenger, however, it's the message that rings hollow. They feel Sun has squandered its lead in internet technology when it neglected to change its business model to take advantage of Java, and now Microsoft has caught up. Indeed, the worst thing for a marketer is for his message to be exposed as untrue.
Sun can spend millions of dollars touting a new direction, and people will believe it - until they experience otherwise. 'The key concern for Sun has always been the stock price,' says Dolberg. 'It has had a decent ride, but needs less hyperbole and more developer support. It needs to create demand and make the Java logo matter.'
'Sun has run a great marketing campaign. What's missing is the restructuring of the business to take advantage of it,' says Joe Jennings, an investor and consultant in Silicon Valley, who has worked in the past with McNealy and Scheerder. 'Sun needs to become a software company that owns hardware, instead of just a workstation company that has a software business.'
Java, it should be remembered, fell into Sun's lap as the by-product of a failed project to develop a platform for TV set-top boxes.
By coincidence, the internet came along. It was pure outrageous luck, and Sun sometimes still looks like it doesn't know what to do with its good fortune beyond ride a story that's begun to putter.
'Sun must change where the investment is occurring. It's a good time to invest in major Java development and design centres.
It should invest in PeopleSoft and SAP,' Jennings continues.
'You encounter companies all the time with a new strategy that doesn't change the business organ-isation or processes to execute. To beat Microsoft, you need to go where it isn't. Don't screw around with Netscape anymore.
If enterprise applications vendors and systems integrators are on Sun's side, that's good. Sun's strength is the enterprise. But everyone has applauded Sun for Java. That means they probably won't make the necessary changes.'
In many ways, maintaining the hype has become more important to Sun than supporting development. Instead of fixing Java's problems at the enterprise level, Sun's marketing efforts have expanded. And instead of cohesive, simple messaging, the Java story appears to have dissolved into a chorus of messages from the competing fiefdoms that are Sun's operating companies.
Java is a programming language, it's a chip, it's a platform. It's soon to be in thermostats and set-top boxes and credit cards.
Yet Sun appears loathe to listen to criticism. For while the strategy might wear thin with partners and developers, it's keeping Sun in the spotlight and in the heads of CEOs. To that end, Sun recently launched the first stages of its $30 million advertising campaign, designed to increase the Java mystique. Last April, Sun hired Lowe & Partners, an agency famous for its work with Coca-Cola and Sony, but a newcomer to technology.
In October 1997, Lowe unveiled its 'Stop the Technology Madness' campaign.
The national print ads scream out slogans like 'Clean up Technopollution' and 'Gizmos of the World Unite'. The television campaign is scheduled to launch at any time now.
Bob Jeffrey, Lowe managing director, calls the campaign an 'out of the uniform' strategy designed to get the attention of CEOs when they're reading Golf Digest or similar publications. Yet the campaign was, without exception, hated by analysts interviewed for this story. 'It builds no brand loyalty,' Jennings says.
'People are sick of being yelled at. These guys get that all day. When you're ahead and you have stuff other people don't, you don't need to yell. It makes you look weak.' Dolberg agrees: 'I'm not in love with their message. It's just preaching to the choir.'
Gadre defends the campaign as a new way of selling - raw emotion. 'We are trying to say that we have a better and simpler idea of how computing can work,' he says. 'We have a relatively meagre advertising budget, so we have to stand out.'
Sun stands out all right. But as Java grows up, perhaps Sun should too.
A mature management of the Microsoft relationship, a strong focus on the enterprise and the actual delivery of a robust 'write once, run anywhere' platform, analysts say, would serve Sun well. Alas, Sun seems destined to damn the torpedoes.
At one point during Sun's annual leadership conference in November 1997, a meeting of 90 or so executives, the room exploded in a debate about whether Sun was trying to do too much with Java. Sun leaders decided to stay the course. 'It's frustrating sometimes to have so much going on,' Gadre admits. 'It's a resource allocation thing. It feels impossible to take on all we're trying to take on, and to do it well. But if we weren't that kind of company, we probably wouldn't have developed Java at all.'
Ironically, it may be ISO standardisation that saves Java in the end.
Before the ISO initiative, Sun's assertions of Java being an open alternative to Windows were dubious, since it controlled all developments and had full power over licencees and compliance.
Java gains more credibility with the support of an international community than Gadre could have created without the ISO. Simultaneously, however, it strips Sun of ownership. 'I think Sun has the habit of creating large expectations,' Gadre admits. 'The claims are outrageous to some, but we have always used a leveraged model where other people build on top of our work. Years from now, Java will be just another point in this long journey. There will be something else to come along to take its place.'
Gadre's right, something will take Java's place. But next time it might not be Sun's technology. Meanwhile, Sun has lost a several-year lead on Microsoft in understanding the internet, and it might have squandered the best idea that it ever had - all on a market-ing campaign.
01998 ASM Communications, Inc. Used with permission from Brandweek magazine.
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