The Elephant in Moscone: JavaOne 2009

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I haven’t been coming to JavaOne quite as long as my colleague, but I’ve been making the trek to San Francisco for Sun’s annual Java confab for at least seven or so years, as near as we could determine. Of those I’ve been to, this was unquestionably the strangest.

And why not, given the elephant in the room. As Ian put it, many were there not to learn about Java or Sun, but to answer for themselves the question “What is Oracle going to do?” To Sun’s credit, they took this on early, integrating Larry Ellison into the opening keynote with some minimal awkwardness.

Still, the show had a distinct farewell ring to it, from the return of McNealy and the salute to Gosling to the conversations with the rank and file. Change is coming and everyone there knew it, which lent the show an expectant, almost pregnant, atmosphere.

What did we learn?

Well, we already knew that Sun was proud of its Java ubiquity; the trotting out of large numbers around the volume of desktop and mobile instances having become almost a cliche over the years. But with the announcement of the Java store, it would seem that the soon-to-be-part-of-Oracle vendor is indeed serious about getting into the enterprise marketplace game.

Also interesting was Ellison’s high profile nod to the JavaFX technology, which – James‘ aside – was an afterthought in many an analysis, mine included (I didn’t cover it in my breakdown on the acquisition news). While my colleague is spot on when he asserts that the one time pet project to make Swing apps prettier could be used to reskin Oracle’s profitable but unattractive business applications, I wonder what the comments portend for the future.

It can and has been argued that one of Sun’s problems, historically, was focus. Beyond the obvious and trite “is Sun a hardware business or a software business” conversation, the question was where the focus was. JavaOne’s a good case in point here; for a business that sells servers, storage, databases, operating systems, enterprise middleware, development tooling and – of course – office productivity software – enterprise stuff, in other words – this show has in recent years had a heavy consumer focus. Lots of time spent on handsets and mobile and games and ringtones, which are certainly relevant to the Java ecosystem, but perhaps less so to the audience. Even considering the increasing frequency of consumer to enterprise adoption patterns.

Much attention was paid to Java the brand, and its admittedly remarkable penetration on a variety of platforms from Blu-Ray to mobile handsets. All good. But with the JavaOne audience heavily skewed towards enterprise developers – as is the general Java development community, reported to be six and a half million strong these days, actually – it’s reasonable to ask whether JavaOne should have been a different show.

Soon, of couse, this won’t be a question for Sun any longer; it will instead be one Oracle’s answering, should they decide to proceed with JavaOne. But while the database giant has been, historically, very well run and intensely focused on growing from traditional enterprise businesses, from its relational database to its more recent acquisitions in the middleware and packaged applications spaces, Sun’s would-be consumer ambitions raise interesting questions about what Oracle wants.

Sun presents some unique challenges for Oracle here, however, as JavaOne clearly illustrated. Assuming for the sake of argument that Oracle does not intend to decommit from the hardware businesses – and I don’t believe they do, analyst recommendations notwithstanding – Oracle’s going to become more than a database and packaged application firm shortly. Which is fine, and demonstrably manageable; HP and IBM, at least, seem to manage the business of being full spectrum systems vendors fairly effectively.

But note that – the discrete HP printer and PC lines of business notwithstanding – neither has anything resembling a comprehensive consumer strategy. Which you wouldn’t expect Oracle to, either…except for the fact that Ellison specifically mentioned OpenOffice.org and seems to have bigger plans for JavaFX. Raising the question of whether his plans are more ambitious than becoming a mere systems player.

Does Oracle want to become, like Microsoft, a firm that tries to play in both the consumer and enterprise worlds? Does it intend to compete with Flash and Silverlight for consumer hearts and minds? It’s too early to say, but it’s not too early to observe that few if any companies pull that off successfully. The DNA for consumer and enterprise vendors seems to some extent to be mutually exclusive, hence IBM’s inability or unwillingness to muster a consumer story, and Apple’s reluctance to ride its desktop momentum into the enterprise.

Whatever the fate of Sun’s assets within Oracle, if this proves to be the last JavaOne as many are speculating, let me be the first to wish it a fond farewell. Whatever else may be said about the show, it’s been a must attend for us at RedMonk as long as we’ve been a firm.

It’s not too often that you get that many smart and fun people in one place, and I will miss it if this is the end, even if I end up replacing it with Google I/O.

Disclosure: IBM, Microsoft and Sun are RedMonk customers, and my T&E for this show was comped. Google and Oracle are not RedMonk customers.

One comment

  1. […] that’s the kind of lissome accounting us analysts get all giddy over. My esteemed colleagues Stephen and James were there the first part of the week and tended to the real work of talking at Community […]

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