Mon, 31 Mar 2003

Sun embraces institutions to boost competitiveness

Zatni Arbi, Columnist, Jakarta,

In the IT world, competition can get as fierce as the Iraq war. Contenders may have to fight each other on different fronts at the same time. One of these fronts is, of course, educational institutions. Hardware, software and training materials are distributed to colleges and universities with the hope that students can learn the technologies and become their defenders when they later enter the workforce.

There is nothing wrong with this strategy, of course, as long as the technologies belong to the class of "industry leaders". Another front the companies are fighting is of course the government. Companies that can forge a close alliance with the government of a country will have more survival power than those who choose to ignore the government. Of course, there is no guarantee that a government will not go to a company's competitors. It all depends on the perceived value that the competitor can offer as opposed to what a company can give.

Governments anywhere in the world do not really have to honor their commitments in the private sector, do they? Government officials are paid to receive or ask for anything from the private sector with as little strings attached as possible.

* The sun still shines

Sun Microsystems is a case in point. Sun may not be a household name for computer end users. However, enterprises all over the world, especially in the telecommunications, finance and manufacturing industries, will proudly say that they have Sun's Sun Fire servers to run their mission-critical applications and infrastructure.

Sun is undoubtedly one of the leaders in the large-scale, UNIX-based server and storage systems. The company also makes powerful UNIX workstations that are used to design complex integrated circuits, for example.

Another very formidable technology that has come out of Sun Microsystems is Java. Mind you, the majority of the current batch of high-end cell phones are Java-enabled. This feature enables richer applications to be run on the small gadgets, and it will expand the functionality of a cell phone to include location- based information and mobile commerce.

Sun was founded in 1982 with only four employees. The name Sun was actually an abbreviation for Stanford University Network. One of the co-founders, Scott McNealy, is now the chairman, president and CEO of the company.

"The network is the computer," McNealy said many years ago. At that time, I could not really understand what he meant -- except that it was meant to belittle two of his company's archrivals, Intel and Microsoft. Today, however, as the network has become such an indispensable part of our daily computing activities, I know that he actually predated the advancement of technology. Indeed, unless our computer is connected to another or to the Internet, we do not feel that we have everything that we need to do our job.

Sun does not have the world to itself, of course. In the high- end UNIX server segment, for example, it has to compete with big players, such as IBM and HP-Compaq. Its version of UNIX, Solaris, is facing growing pressure from the increasingly popular Linux, which has also been receiving strong backing from IBM and others. Sun has also begun to adopt Linux, and the latest Sun Ray stations are now based on Linux.

* Java Tarik ONE

McNealy was traveling in the region this month, with stops in China, Australia and Singapore. In Singapore, he signed an agreement to take Sun's collaboration with Singapore's Infocomm Development Authority to a program called Java Tarik ONE. The word "Tarik" of course, is Malay for "pull", but it seems that they also use it to mean a "pool". Well, many Singaporeans cannot pronounce these two words distinctly anyway.

It is meant to build a pool of Java professionals, nonetheless. In her address at the launch of the Java Tarik ONE, IDA's CEO, Mrs. Tan Ching Yee, reported that the earlier Java Tarik program, which was launched in 1997, had generated US$80 million in investments for Singapore and expanded Java's adoption into the wireless Web services and ASP sectors. More importantly, Singapore currently has about 50,000 Java developers. This number is the third largest in the Asia Pacific region, with India and China as the top two countries. However, given the fact that Singapore has such a small population compared to these two countries, the figure of 50,000 strongly reflects the dominance of Java technology. The program has also resulted in about 50 products and applications.

The new Java Tarik ONE, so named to reflect Singapore One Network for Everyone initiative and Sun Microsystems' Open Net Environment, is expected to garner a $57,000 investment. Half of it will be provided by IDA and Sun and the rest from industry players.

* Contribution to education $700m

Besides strengthening its ties with IDA, Sun Microsystems also announced its contribution to educational institutions in Asia, including institutes of higher education in Singapore and Indonesia. The company is donating hardware and software, including free licenses of its Java language, Solaris operating system, Sun ONE infrastructure software and StarOffice suite.

StarOffice, which is now in Version 6.0, is actually Sun's weapon for taking on the domination of Microsoft Office. The suite, which has received a lot of rave reviews, is offered at a much lower price than MS Office and even WordPerfect Office. Sun bought it from a small company and then developed it into a full- fledged office productivity tool. Today it is being offered for $75.95, but those in the academic world can use it for free.

StarOffice is just one of about 120 products that Sun is making available to educational institutions for free. The total value of this donation is estimated to reach $700 million.

One question remains, though: How effective will their approach of giving away products to students and teachers be in the long run in contributing to the company's bottom line? This remains to be seen. Clearly, Sun has to complement this strategy with continuously improved technologies to ensure its survival in this highly competitive industry.