Breaking News…. Oracle buys Sun!? What’s wrong with this picture?
What’s surprising is that a very large software company is buying a very large hardware company. You often see a hardware company buying a software company, but I can’t really think of a deal that’s gone the other way around. Certainly not at this level. My practice at PJM Consulting serves all kinds of technology companies–but a focus is on software. Although every situation is different, my typical advice is for software companies to stay away from hardware, if at all possible.
This news is very interesting on several levels:
Involvement of two high profile, strong personalities in the technology business
I’m talking about Larry Ellison and Scott McNealy. Of course, MCNealy no longer actively runs Sun, but he is still Chairman and a power to be dealt with. He was allegedly the force behind the killing of the potential deal with IBM. Apparently Larry and Scott are old buddies, so maybe there won’t be a problem. But these are two very strong-minded, controversial and sometimes outrageous leaders. Even though they are long time friends, they have never before played together so closely in the same sandbox. It wouldn’t be shocking to see a few disagreements, and some public drama as a result.
Combining the Largest Revenue Database Product with the Largest in Unit Market Share
This aspect of the deal will not get as much attention as some of the others. But Oracle is the 500 lb Gorilla at the top end of the market, and the open source MYSQL is the most popular database choice at the low end, particularly in website development. This aspect likely won’t demand anti-trust scrutiny because they don’t really compete directly. But potential marketplace competition from MYSQL going up market, and Oracle bringing out lower cost solutions, is eliminated by this deal.
Software Company buying a Hardware Company
As I stated above, this is highly unusual, especially for companies of this size. Most established software companies have very high margins, and wouldn’t want to “pollute” their earnings with the lower margin, often commoditized hardware revenue. I can’t think of another comparable deal, looking back even into the distant past. The business models are pretty different. In hardware companies manufacturing efficiency and inventory control are major factors in business success; in most software businesses these are inconsequential factors to success. Hardware businesses tend to be more capital-intensive, while software businesses are very R&D; intensive. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the management of these businesses includes different functional skill sets. Why is Ellison interested in Sun? Just for the Java and the Solaris OS software, or is he really going to continue with the hardware business as well? Even though in some ways, Sun was a bargain at the price of just under $6B net. But if he’s just interested in the software pieces of Sun, the price looks pretty steep–Sun’s direct revenue from Java and Solaris is a pretty minimal portion of its total revenue. Ellison had a flirtation with hardware years ago with the Network Computer concept–could he really still be itching to become a fully integrated systems company?
What will Oracle Do With Sun’s Software?
To me, this is by far the most intriguing question raised by the deal. Solaris is a nice OS, and has a good installed base. But it’s never really had the same impact in the market since open source Linux came around. Java is pervasive in the computing arena, and in embedded systems as well. It has a huge impact on the Internet. It’s literally everywhere. But after trying to charge big money for Java in the early days, Sun decided to give it away. I was intimately involved in the embedded Java market in those early days. Sun initially looked like they had created a technology that could allow them to challenge Microsoft for computing dominance. I believe Microsoft was very worried at the time. But to say that Sun fumbled the ball would be way too kind. Frankly, their effort to commercialize Java was like something out of the Keystone Cops. I could detail their myriad missteps. To summarize, the biggest problem was that they were a hardware company attempting to commercialize a software product, which usually doesn’t work very well. Sun appeared not to have a clue as to what they were doing. Finally, they quit trying to directly make money at Java; they put it into open source and basically decided to give away the technology to anyone who wanted to use it. It looked to me like a way to spite Microsoft, more than anything.
What Happens to Java?
So where does that leave Oracle once they close the deal and own Java? What is their plan to leverage Java in the marketplace? Will they start trying to charge for it somehow? I think this is doubtful; there’s probably no going back on that decision at this point. I’m sure that Mr. Ellison and his team have something in mind–but I can’t imagine what it is. They’ve been very savvy at making some acquisitions that haven’t looked all that complementary, that have worked out well. So I wouldn’t bet against them. But I can help wonder if they haven’t stretched a bit too far in their minds to find synergy in this one. It reminds me a bit of Ebay’s very expensive purchase of Skype, which is now being unraveled because it just didn’t create any synergy. We shall see what happens–it should be interesting to watch this unfold.
The prospective Sun-Oracle deal is one of the more interesting we’ve seen for a while. There shouldn’t be any major anti-trust issues with this deal, and it doesn’t appear that a higher bidder is likely to emerge. Watching the organizational integration (and possible divestment), as well as the interaction of the outsized personalities, should be entertaining at the very least. But most of all look for what Ellison does with Java–that’s where the real intrigue lays. Post a comment to give me your view of this deal.