Even as I was defending ZFS in my previous post, some of my disagreements with folks at Sun seem to have flared again, and I got to asking myself the question in the title. Back in the day, Digital Equipment Corporation was quite an interesting beast. On the one hand, they had a lot of really cool technology and a tremendous capacity to create more. I’ve often sung the praises of work done at DEC during that era, and to this day consider experience there to be a significant plus on a resume. On the other hand, DEC always had a problem getting actual revenue-generating work out of many of its employees. For one thing, many old-timers were notorious for seeming to spend all day conversing on mailing lists and via VAX Notes instead of designing, coding, and debugging. Furthermore, a lot of people even in mainstream engineering groups seemed to be involved in projects with little or no commercial potential.

I’m not against research and innovation, mind; I just think it should be done by people officially dedicated to it full time, using schedules and metrics and such different for those used for product development. I think companies should define a resource level for research, I think that level should be higher than is de facto the case at most companies today, and I think people should rotate between research and development groups. One of my pet peeves at EMC was that they didn’t know how to handle research and so basically stopped doing any. However, none of that means that people currently assigned to a product-development group should try to make up for any such lack themselves by haring off on every project that catches their fancy. The only thing worse than individuals doing it is when people who are supposedly in a leadership position in mainstream engineering do it and drag whole teams along with them. If they want to strike out in that kind of a direction they should seek an assignment to a research group where the project can be managed appropriately. If the idea pans out it can be fed into engineering where it can again be managed appropriately – this time toward driving revenue.

The other thing about DEC was that its marketing was broken. Some have said they couldn’t sell their way out of a wet paper bag. I don’t know about that, but it did seem like DEC often forgot who their customers were (or would have been). The folks from WRL and SRC and the rest were always well represented at all of the technical conferences and DEC was heavily involved in projects that we’d now recognize as early open-source. They’d impress all of the other geeks with their whiz-bang, and their stuff really was whiz-bang, but geeks don’t make purchasing decisions for that class of equipment. The marketers and salespeople who did interact with the people who buy stuff seemed like much less of a presence. This fact, along with the relatively low level of per-employee productivity as measured in contributions to revenue streams, is what doomed DEC. Despite their technical prowess, for which anyone with any sense will always respect them, they got swallowed up by a company (Compaq) that was noted for its disinterest in any kind of innovation. It was a sad day for computing.

So, is Sun the new DEC? Let’s look at the issues I’ve mentioned. The modern equivalent of mailing lists and VAX Notes would be blogs and web forums. Sun and its employees seem quite taken with those things, so there’s one point of similarity. Too many people playing instead of creating products that make money? Strike two. Focusing too much on geek appeal instead of business appeal? Strike three. What was good about DEC is now good about Sun; what was bad likewise. It’s ironic because Sun was a significant player in driving DEC from the marketplace, but now Sun has become DEC and their five-year stock chart reflects it. How long before the next Compaq (Dell, perhaps?) swallows up Sun?