Sun-Apple rumors set markets jangling

But what could they possibly want from each other?


A few spontaneous remarks by Sun Microsystems' pony-tailed software marketing whizz-kid Jonathan Schwartz have set analysts a-flutter.

Sun used the LinuxWorld show in town this week to showcase its Linux desktop, codenamed 'Mad Hatter', for the first time. There's nothing particularly interesting about Mad Hatter, which is exactly the kind of crash-a-minute bodge you'd expect to get from throwing Helix software and Mozilla into a Linux distribution. But it was Schwartz's effusive praise of Apple that caught the eye of observers, as Dennis Sellers at MacCentral documents: "They're everyone's favorite company, and iTunes is really cool."

Schwartz's giddy remark could safely have been discounted as fanboy effusiveness, if only Sun folk haven't been talking up Apple kit left, right and center for the past few months, throwing us the kind of knowing winks that could be mistaken for a horse having an epileptic fit.

So, seriously, are Apple and Sun viable partners, or is this exercise a distracting PR ruse? Let's have a look.

Do the Wall Street Shuffle

To start with the obvious, both are systems companies: vertically-integrated UNIX™ hardware vendors which find themselves at odds with the finance capitalists' model of what a technology company should be.

Wall Street has a very clear idea of this, make no mistake: the hardware is created by Intel, the software is created by Microsoft, the support calls are fielded by ambitious Indians who've been trained to speak English with an Alabama accent, and the 28 per cent return rates that Dell fields for its laptops are well, best not to be mentioned at all, ever.

This very lossy model has succeeded in some respects, giving us consistent and incredibly powerful computers at a very low cost, but as McNealy and Jobs (we hope) both appreciate, the experience for the end user is quite horrible.

Horizontal capitalism is a scam, a blame-game in which no one ever takes the responsibility for the damn thing not working. There's a mini-industry of PC magazines and agony columns devoted to repairing computer problems that should never have been allowed to happen in the first place.

I am the very model of a model Major General

But McNealy and Jobs, romantics both, have been cast as luddites for refusing to give in to the relentless market pressures: they're at odds with an pro-globalisation orthodoxy which puts the macro-efficient distributor at the top of the tree and the systems company at the bottom: a model that most consumers find repugnant.

So, egos not withstanding, why aren't they friends? Well, Sun and Apple have good reasons to be pardners. As the company that commercialised UNIX™, Sun has mastered every trick in the book except consumer desktops. Sun is a remarkable company in that it picked up brainpower it didn't really deserve to have. But whether in workstations, PCs, or phones, Sun has never convincingly been able to demonstrate that it understands the consumer market. Meanwhile, Apple has through a combination of attention to detail, and mirrors-and-smoke marketing - abetted by a poodle press - been able to project an image as America's Only Consumer Compamy.

But this dovetail doesn't necessarily make for a great marriage. Sun and Apple have both judiciously refrained from entering markets where they could make a lot of money. In each case, cautious consels have prevailed. Now that Apple has an industrial strength SMP UNIX™ it could turn Mac OS X into a viable enterprise platform and Sun could lean on Apple to provide it the client-side mysticism that it can’t itself produce. An agreement between the two would provide us with plenty of ironies: Apple uses an imaging model designed by Sun's James Gosling that's far superior to the designed-by-committee X Window systems that became the UNIX™ standard.

But despite ideological consistencies, neither side seems be willing to be the first to declare common ground, let alone broach the subject that there won't be an American tech economy or technical leadership if Wintel economics are followed through to a natural conclusion. Although they share the same values, it appears that their respective egos preclude any chance of the two creating a new ground for American business. Not only are McNealy and Jobs too scared to contradict the prevailing Wall Street sentiment (although Scott, with his banana-shop metaphors is the most articulate counter-advocate on the scene), between them, they're too scared to articulate some fairly simple values.

Aside from the sideshow, Sun is playing a long game. Its offer to CIOs of nailing each desktop to a fixed price of $200 or so a year dramatically undercuts anything Microsoft - grappling with the revolt against Licensing 6.0 - can offer. Where Steve Jobs, who has a shiny operating system with nowhere to go, fits into things is anyone's guess. Systems companies ought to be educating the public on the virtues of their business model, stressing accountability and reliability. But rather than hang together, they seem determined to hang separately. ®

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