Is Java to Blame for Sun Layoffs?

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eWEEK readers weigh in on Sun Microsystems’ woes and the reason Sun is laying off over 6,000 employees. Is Java to blame? Some say inroads from other languages and application development frameworks such as Ruby on Rails could further Sun’s demise. Others say never count Sun out.

What is a Java developer to do? Sun Microsystems began letting people go as of Jan. 22 in the first wave of layoffs that are likely to affect up to 5,000 to 6,000 employees. Many of those released, according to employee reports, were coders.

My colleague, Chris Preimesberger, reported that layoff notifications were sent to about 1,300 employees as part of that action. And reductions were made across all levels, including vice presidents and directors, Sun said.

Despite the economy being a major factor leading to this carnage, folks are looking for who else or what else to blame for this mess. Some mention the company’s “NIH (not invented here)” attitude, while others single out Java and Sun’s inattention to complaints about Java’s complexity, which opened the door for newer, more developer-friendly languages to come in. Fair points both.

Said one person who commented on Preimesberger’s Sun layoffs story:

BTW the engineers are not blameless either. Like many successful companies used to be a lot of NIH attitude. That has changed. OpenSolaris is evidence of that. But is it too late?

And in a comment responding to that one, another reader said:

Yeah I think it is too late, even with OpenSolaris and I.murdock [Ian Murdock, founder of Debian Linux and champion of OpenSolaris] there. Nobody is using it. People are sticking to Linux.

Even their sure bet java, is being threatened by .NET and a slew of other more dynamic, friendly languages. People were complaining about the unfriendliness of Java technology, its being too tedious, they had to write code for the plumbing instead of focusing on their business domain, and Sun didn’t do anything to rectify, or dragged their feet so much, that it opened the door to PHP, RoR [Ruby on Rails]. A lot of people moved to PHP, Ruby and RoR and even .NET.

These guys messed up one after another. In a way they deserve what is happening to them. I predict they will go the same way like Informix, which had good technology and got bought by IBM for its technology and then got ‘dumped,’ after their technology was grafted into IBM’s own databases.

Well, there’s some truth in both of those claims. But from my sense of things, despite Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz’s claim that Sun has been able to cash in on Java in a myriad of ways, Java was never a direct moneymaker for Sun, but an indirect one by association. And it is pretty well known that other companies, such as IBM, have made more money from Java than Sun has.

So I don’t think Sun’s woes can be linked specifically to Java or software revenue problems. Java is everywhere still. And, indeed, in one alternative sense Java could be viewed as possibly one of the things that could even hurt Sun’s revenue, as its write-once, run-anywhere promise makes it easier for users to migrate their applications off of Sun hardware.

James Governor, an analyst with RedMonk, said, “Sun’s problems are not really software revenue problems—that is not where the fall-off has been. It needs to sell more boxes. The bigger problem is still servers and the company’s awful decision to can Solaris x86 back in the day. That single decision should haunt the managers at Sun—it’s the one that hurt the firm more than any other.”

And Marc Fleury, founder and former CEO of JBoss, who made a killing off of selling services around the Java-based open-source JBoss Application Server, said, “The secular trend of Linux is hurting Solaris. As Linux continues its path of adoption in the high end, Solaris is a hindrance. They could ignore this point five years ago because of legacy applications, but porting to Linux and, ironically, Java makes this point a thing of the past.”

John Crupi, CTO of JackBe and former distinguished engineer at Sun, put it succinctly, and in my view correctly. Said Crupi:

“Sun is ahead of its time in vision, but unfortunately others beat them to the punch. Take a look at Amazon EC2. Sun announced $1 (approw 71p) per CPU per hour years ago. Then comes Amazon and EC2 and executes on Sun’s vision. Now Sun is playing catch-up.”

Michael Cote, another RedMonk analyst, said, “Technologies from the Sun side of the world like Java are still widely used and depended on for billions of dollars in potential revenue. The problem for Sun has been capitalising on that potential more than its rivals. In the case of Java, other outfits like IBM and Oracle/BEA somehow figured [out] how to swipe sales based on Java middleware away from Sun. On the other hand, when you look at Sun revenue numbers, they’re still large amounts of money, just not enough to support the large company that Sun’s become. To me, Sun has the problem of too wide of a focus: There are many software products and areas that Sun works in, but I’m not sure if the market duplication helps more than hurts.”

So there are all kinds of places to lay blame, but I seriously doubt that developers abandoning Java should be one of them. Besides, Sun is making headway with efforts to support Ruby, Python and other dynamic languages on the Java Virtual Machine.

As Marc Fleury put it: “Sun has a history of proving everyone wrong and shaming analysts; never write them off. The ‘Sun is setting’ pun has been going on for the past eight years, since [the] dot-com bomb … that is one long sunset. I like sunsets.”

So what do you think? What’s the reason Sun is in the predicament it is in?

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