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Sun Microsystems

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When Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle in 2010, it marked the end of one of the pioneering hardware and software developers of the past thirty years, whose contributions included a powerful desktop workstation and the Java programming language.

Sun (Stanford University Network) began as a tiny Silicon Valley startup in 1982. Andy Bechtolsheim, a doctoral candidate in computer science and electrical engineering, partnered with two Stanford MBAs, Vinod Khosla and Scott McNealy, and Bill Joy, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley.

Sun built computer workstations small enough to fit on a desktop but powerful enough to run business applications. Their original 1982 model (the Sun-1) had a Motorola 68000 CPU, 1 MB of memory, and a million-pixel graphics display. It was based on a design for a personal CAD workstation that Bechtolsheim built as a graduate student using spare parts. These computers were competitively priced, ran on UNIX software, and featured TCP/IP. Having dominated the “Workstation Wars” of the 1980s, in the 1990s, Sun became a leading maker of large-scale business servers. Sun also made RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) commercially viable in 1989, when it released the first of the line of Sparc (“scalable processor architecture”) workstations.

Sun became known for the slogan “the network is the computer,” coined by its fifth employee, mathematician John Gage, in 1984. It created the industry-standard technology for network filing sharing that year. Sun released Solaris, the first off-the-shelf distributed computing environment, in 1991. In 1995, Sun released Java, which was a safer programming language than C but more capable than Visual Basic. The goal of Java was to allow programs to function on any device independent of the system’s hardware or operating system. Java became one of the world’s most popular programming languages, particularly for developing web-based applications. But it ran into trouble when Microsoft allegedly tweaked its operating system to make Java buggy and unreliable in its products.

During the “dot com bubble” of the late-1990s, Sun’s success as a seller of UltraSparc servers to the emerging website market led to a sharp run-up in price. When the market in tech stocks tanked in the early 2000s, so did Sun’s value. It dropped from a high of $246 per share to $49 per share.