There were so many legendary innovations that came out of that great company — the Solaris operating system, SPARC, NFS, Java and many many others. There was never much wrong about the technology at Sun. The business strategy, on the other hand, was not always stellar. But that’s for another post.
In this post we will go back to one of Sun’s brilliant and doomed marketing campaigns, to illustrate the lesson that being early in tech is just as deadly and in many ways much worse than being wrong.
In 1984 Sun’s employee #21 John Gage coined the term: The network is the computer. It became Sun’s motto, tagline, and vision statement. My middle-aged readers will remember that the company ran famous ad campaigns on it (here’s one of the later ones, the internet doesn’t seem to have a copy of the originals — that’s how old they are!).
It’s kind of hard to exaggerate just how insightful and prophetic it was. Essentially, Sun understood and predicted not just an internet at scale, but also cloud computing, long before AWS existed — actually long before Amazon was even founded. It’s like they had a crystal ball. And they built real products in servers and networking that presaged almost everything modern cloud computing is, including virtualization.
So why didn’t Sun become the trillion dollar company? many reasons. One of them is that they were way too early. The world wasn’t ready for cloud infrastructure in the 1990s. Connectivity wasn’t fast enough, for one thing. Netflix, by the way, survived a similar predicament by coming up with the brilliant short-term video rental thing. But Sun was not so lucky (or clever).
Now, Sun was a big company, not a teeny weeny little startup. They had a lot of revenue. They might have hoped to last long enough until mass adoption finally came. But it didn’t turn out that way.
Most people think that being wrong will kill you. More often, it’s being right and early that will. It’s worth noting that great VCs are especially attuned to the danger of being early — because their funds have limited lifespans, for sure. But also because they have seen the pattern before over a few cycles and decades. It’s one of the first questions they’ll ask themselves about a venture.
I wish I could end this post with a pro tip on how to avoid this fate of being early. I’m not sure that there is. There are innovation frameworks like the Institue of the Future’s Signals. You can use them to try to see if a pivotal moment in the life of a new technology has just taken place.
But mostly you just can’t know. It’s an ironic part of life that you can be completely right about everything and still fail.