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How Sun Bought Apple Computer (Almost) 307

Posted by timothy
from the alternate-history dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "There was a time in the 1990s when Sun, at its wealthiest, was poised to buy Apple when it was at the lowest point in its storied history and now eWeek reports on how the deal for Sun to buy Apple fell through. 'Back in late 1995 early '96, when we were at our peak, we were literally hours away from buying Apple for about $5 to $6 a share,' says former Sun CEO Ed Zander. 'I don't know what we were going to do with it, but we were going to buy it.' Sun co-founder Scott McNealy adds that there was an investment banker on the Apple side who basically blocked it. 'He put so many terms into the deal that we couldn't afford to go do it.' Would there be iPhones, iPads and iPods on the market today if Sun Microsystems had been able to close a deal to buy out Apple in the mid-1990s? No, says McNealy. 'If we had bought Apple, there wouldn't have been iPods or iPads ... I'd have screwed that up.'"
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How Sun Bought Apple Computer (Almost)

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  • by Chas (5144) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @11:53AM (#35323740) Homepage Journal

    Well at least he's being honest about it.

    • The question remains open whether a world without iPads or iPods would be any different.
      • by msobkow (48369)

        As Apple did not invent the idea of Pad computing, I'm quite certain there would have been others to market. The only questions are whether they would have been as successful or achieved the brand recognition that Apple has.

      • Perhaps not, but one can dream.

      • > whether a world without iPads or iPods would be any different.
        I never would have succeeded as a supplier of feminine hygiene products if it weren't for pad casting.

      • by Penguinisto (415985) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:23PM (#35323954) Journal

        Judging by what actually happened, the answer would be "yes", but the outcome would have differed, and taken far longer to realize overall. After all, there have been tablets for 10 years now, and portable mp3 players out long before the iPod.

        I think that, while many like to deride Apple for many reasons, there is one thing that, at least IMHO, commands respect: Apple has a knack for producing products that folks like to use, in forms that make it drop-easy to do so... and in turn they do revolutionize the industry in question, forcing competitors to adopt, adapt, or perish.

        Take the iPad... Microsoft and OEMs have had tablets out since 2001-2002 or so. OTOH, those products, well... sucked. They were expensive for what they did, the functionality was crap, the battery drained almost as fast as the laptops did, and the UI was ill-fitted for the job. Then the iPad comes along - a bit limited in flexibility, but almost perfect for the form-factor and what folks expected of it. Battery life is insanely long. The UI is almost perfect for fingers (stylus? who needs that?) And everything about it just seems to 'click' with the non-techie public.

        Almost immediately, and like *every other Apple product*, competitors (including Microsoft) begin aping the thing... and in a repeatable progression: First we see a ton of vaporware and 'concept' demos, then massive promises (most of which fall short), then out comes the blatant (and undeniably crap) imitators, and finally, a long time later, some competitors begin trickling in with a few halfway decent competitors... af first falling well short of the mark, in spite of being somewhat decent products in their own right. Eventually the competition becomes almost as capable, perhaps surpassing the Apple product - but by then Apple has the market pretty much sewn up - if not in marketshare, then in profit share. The iPod was like this. Even the iPhone is like this.

        I think OTOH that Sun would have dickered around, then come out with a few enterprise-oriented versions, then let them each die, while more consumer-oriented competitors would have picked up the torch and limped along.

        I do have to give props to Apple for one thing - without them, most consumer-oriented tech would have likely progressed a whole lot slower than it has. I also think that a lot of corollary bits (e.g. digital music licensing, apps, mobile smartphones, etc) would have been slowed down, if not stalled completely. I say this because Microsoft would have just sat around for the most part, and Linux would have had a much harder time getting anywhere (esp. w/o Google jump-starting things). I mean, sure, there are things that have moved along and disrupted tech nicely w/o Apple, but when you examine them (netbooks for instance), they're not much more than incremental iterations of existing products... not complete disruptors.

        • by Solandri (704621)

          Take the iPad... Microsoft and OEMs have had tablets out since 2001-2002 or so. OTOH, those products, well... sucked. They were expensive for what they did, the functionality was crap, the battery drained almost as fast as the laptops did, and the UI was ill-fitted for the job. Then the iPad comes along - a bit limited in flexibility, but almost perfect for the form-factor and what folks expected of it. Battery life is insanely long. The UI is almost perfect for fingers (stylus? who needs that?) And everyth

          • by salesgeek (263995)

            The fatal flaw in Microsoft's "tablet" PC was that it was designed around the pen based computing concept. The GUI was optimized for stylus, and most input was done using handwriting recognition that didn't work that well. The result was a miserable user experience and carts at your local hospital that turned a tablet into a desktop, complete with keyboard and mouse.

            The current iteration of touch screen designs are vastly easier to work with, but still have some fairly serious limitations... particularly a

          • by node 3 (115640)

            Make a 7"-12" tablet priced at about $250, able to last an 8 hr workday on a single charge, able to run proprietary in-house apps (i.e. not locked to an app store), capable of real I/O (e.g. printing, able to accommodate things like a barcode scanner), and I predict sales in the tens if not hundreds of millions.

            iPad is all those things, except for $250, including already in the "tens of millions" in sales.

        • by RogerWilco (99615)

          I think the really important thing that Apple does differently, is put the user in the center.

          A lot of companies either try to open up new markets for existing products, have some new cool hardware they try to sell, or mainly cater to the OEMs and large business needs.

          Apple specifically seems to start with the question of what does the user want?

          Sometimes this means they end up with something that is very expensive, as usually the user wants a lot.

          But the key point is that they start with a desire, and then

      • ...and nothing of value was lost
    • by Megane (129182) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:01PM (#35323808) Homepage
      Actually, anyone who was Not Steve would have screwed it up. What Woz had in technical savvy, Jobs had in product savvy. Apple would have been long gone if NeXT hadn't bought them for negative 400 million dollars.
    • by Culture20 (968837)
      He's just speaking well of the dead.
  • It could have resulted in Apple retaining unique hardware, rather than moving to Intel CPUs. Of course, whether that would be for the better or the worse is an open question.
    • Or Macs would have used Sparc CPUs, and run a preemptive multitasking OS years earlier.
    • It could have resulted in Apple retaining unique hardware, rather than moving to Intel CPUs. Of course, whether that would be for the better or the worse is an open question.

      Apple's move to PC hardware was key to its success. They basically doubled their market share after moving from PPC to x86. The consumer no longer had to choose Mac OS or Windows, they could have both(*). This made the decision to buy a Mac much easier for many.

      (*) Yes there was emulation under PPC but it was far less practical, especially for games.

      • by MBCook (132727)

        The G5s were nice, but they weren't going to keep up with Intel for long. The G4s in the laptops were very power efficient, but dog slow at the end.

        Apple HAD to move off PPC, it was unsustainable. x86 was the only option. Cheap, easily sourced, constantly speeding up.

        If Apple went to something else, they'd still have to keep up with Intel. Only the x86 has enough volume that the processor makers can afford to keep doing that.

        • The G5's sucked. They did great at the specfp benchmark, but in real world usage, they were a lot like the Pentium 4 - never lived up to anything close to the hype. The G4 actually had superior IPC at everything except floating point, and if they had been clocked as high as the G5, they would have been generally faster for consumer usage. Apple should have done a higher-clocked G4 for consumer systems, and licensed straight Power4 for Xserve.
  • by CriminalNerd (882826) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @11:59AM (#35323780)

    In other news, a few years ago, Microsoft was poised to buy Yahoo!'s search engine but didn't. Would there be Yahoo! Search, Yahoo! Bing, and Yahoo! Mail if Microsoft had been able to close a deal to buy out Yahoo! in the mid-2000s? No, says Balmer. "If we had bought Yahoo!, there wouldn't have been Yahoo! Search or Yahoo! Bing ... I'd have screwed that up."

    We'll have more on that story and other past attempted company takeover news at '11.

  • Because of course without Jobs and Apple the world would be utterly bereft of "innovation".

    • by Penguinisto (415985) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:40PM (#35324080) Journal

      It would have been there, but it would have been a whole lot slower. Way slower, IMHO.

      Imagine something like the iPod coming out just this year, instead of 10 years ago. Imagine the RIAA going even more apeshit (yeah, I know) and keeping the music biz locked down to where digital music was either illegal, or locked down under so much DRM that it would have been nearly impossible to use. Imagine smartphones still being over-priced and slow piles of crap, with the useful models being hella expensive, and apps being distributed (if at all) under carrier lockdown. Imagine still having to use tablets with a stylus, crap specs, crappier battery life, and all of them still running Windows.

      I know full well that others would have filled the void, certainly. Problem is, they would have been very slow about it, and innovation would come in fits and starts, with Microsoft running the show (that, or doing its best to ruin the show if it couldn't get a piece of the action - see also netbooks when those all first came out running Linux - notice how all the sudden Microsoft got all wonky with the licensing all the sudden, sometimes threatening vendors outright?).

      • by betterunixthanunix (980855) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:54PM (#35324174)
        Imagine portable digital music players coming out this year? As opposed to when the first MP3 player came out?

        http://www.google.com/patents?vid=4667088 [google.com]

        Or maybe you meant something more like this:

        http://www.techpin.com/the-first-mp3-player/ [techpin.com]

        Oh yeah, we really needed Apple to get portable music.

        Let's get real here. Apple's strength is not in creating new technologies, but in making new technologies look pretty and in marketing those technologies. If Apple had not stepped in with the iPod, we would probably have seen a market with a lot of competing companies, making uglier products.

        Innovation is a continuous process, with or without Apple. Where is Apple's research division? How does it compare with universities, or MSR, or IBM research? I do not remember Apple building a computer system that could play Jeopardy (yes, that technology will be relevant to consumers in the future, whether or not Apple decides to exploit it).
        • by iluvcapra (782887)

          Imagine portable digital music players coming out this year?

          He didn't say "portable music player," he said "the iPod." iPods are, granted, a kind of portable music player, but they are also different from all other portable music players in that it's an actual mass consumer product instead of some hobbyist thing. Without iPod's we'd still have portable music players, but they'd all play ATRACS off of Memory Sticks...

          • There were mass market portable music players before the iPod. Apple did not invent that idea, and it predates the first MP3 players.
            • I don't think the argument about who invented the portable(personal) digital media player is relevant to the question of why Apple (who was several years late) dominates the market. The next tech company that correctly answers that question will dominate the rest of the market and challenge Apple.

              In an analogy: Ford did not invent the automobile, nor did he invent assembly line production, and his first product was limited in capability and appearance but the price was such that almost anyone could buy it.

        • I do not remember Apple building a computer system that could play Jeopardy (yes, that technology will be relevant to consumers in the future, whether or not Apple decides to exploit it).

          Just like how Chess AI is relevant to consumers now.

        • ... in making new technologies look pretty...

          If by "look pretty" you mean "functionally usable", then yes. Before iTunes would take multiple apps to rip, organize, and play your mp3s. Even then you'd still probably be moving them all about manually file by file. Before the iPhone, phones could view webpages and probably better in bullet points, but were practically useless. You could get more information out of 5 minutes on the iPhone's safari and an hour on most phone browsers. Even what you probably mean

  • by Mr. Slippery (47854) <(tms) (at) (infamous.net)> on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:12PM (#35323864) Homepage

    No, says McNealy. 'If we had bought Apple, there wouldn't have been iPods or iPads ... I'd have screwed that up.'"

    And nothing of value would have been lost. Perhaps, even, actual useful computing devices would have been developed, instead of shiny geegaws. Perhaps the Apple of Woz would have won out over the Apple of Jobs.

    • Hankering for the days when computers came in kit form and a portable music player mean using granddad's wheelchair to ferry around the phonograph? Yup, that's certainly a demographic upon which one could build a business.

      • How about the days when people did not have to worry about breaking the law just to the software they wanted to run on the computers they legally purchased?
        • by XxtraLarGe (551297) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:50PM (#35324148) Journal

          How about the days when people did not have to worry about breaking the law just to the software they wanted to run on the computers they legally purchased?

          I think you a word.

        • Are you writing from the future? If so, in what year did this become the norm for computers? Are Twinkies still available, or did the health mafia finally outlaw them?

        • by Guy Harris (3803)

          How about the days when people did not have to worry about breaking the law just to the software they wanted to run on the computers they legally purchased?

          I don't have to break the law to run the software I want to run on the computer I legally purchased - and I purchased it from Apple and and running an OS from Apple. I just happened to buy the right computer for that purpose - one of the computers running Mac OS X, rather than one of the computers running iOS.

      • by hedwards (940851)

        I had one of these bad boys years before the iPod first appeared. Rio PMP300 [wikipedia.org] And my PMP500 was really a great player. Even at the time that Apple first released their players, Creative amongst others had already created their Nomad line.

        It might be that we wouldn't have players like the iPod without Apple, but let's be honest, the iPods were never the best players out, the sound quality wasn't ever as good as the competition and the feature list somewhat anemic compared to other lines of players.

    • I'll choose you amongst the hordes to respond to. Feel flattered ;) iPads are finding huge traction amongst medical and flight and construction and education and science visualization and you name it, all because there is FINALLY a low cost, Stable, robust, and well implemented platform for data interchange in the field as a comoditized thick-or-thin client. Are you telling me palm or windows phone 7 was what you saw driving the future of these industries and programmer growth because companies were invest
      • How is Apple doing with respecting the intelligence level and freedoms of their customers? Oh, right, Steve Jobs does not care about those things, and his vision of computing is that users should be clueless about everything works (unless they do have a clue; then they should pay him so they can write software).

        /flame
        • Don't bash Steve for something Bill started. The "clueless, tech-illiterate" user is a result of Windows more than any Apple product. The only difference is that Windows taught people that they can be illiterates and still use a tool, while Apple finally actually delivered to that promise. What Apple did was simply to go all the way and not only give people an easy approach to whatever they want to do but also disable them from fucking things up.

          This is mainly the reason why I have not and will not ever own

          • Did you enjoy your 500 page manual with your nipple when you were 0? Some people have better things to do, snd your condescension about being tech illiterate is great.... So don't drive over a bridge until you're an engineer, huh?
            • by Draek (916851)

              Isn't it wonderful? that we, in today's age, have people actually proud of their own ignorance. Simply magnificent.

              But I guess you're one of those that views driver's licenses as an useless invasion of privacy because if I paid for it I'm obviously able to use it, right?

              • The days of all science being knowable in one life time are quite over. Stargate characters aside, of course. If you only used that which you'd been tested on to understand you wouldnt have airbags in your car, numb nuts. You conflate the ability to retrieve information (the point of the computer!) with the ability to create the retrieval of that informtion -- all abstracted away. Just how it is.
              • Isn't it wonderful? that we, in today's age, have people actually proud of their own ignorance. Simply magnificent.

                There's a vast difference between "being proud of one's own ignorance" and "understanding what one's needs are".

                I have a MacBook Pro. I love it. I just want to get down to business, not masturbate with shell scripts and config files to boost my sense of self worth. That's not saying that I don't understand how a computer functions, far from it, but rather that I don't feel the need to incorporate needlessly complex things into my daily life.

                But anyway, when the time comes to fuck around, I can open-up the t

          • I seem to remember the "computer as an appliance" concept being something Steve Jobs wanted to push all the way back in the 1980s. What do you think "computer as an appliance" means, if not "computer for hopelessly clueless users who should remain clueless?"
            • by Guy Harris (3803)

              I seem to remember the "computer as an appliance" concept being something Steve Jobs wanted to push all the way back in the 1980s. What do you think "computer as an appliance" means, if not "computer for hopelessly clueless users who should remain clueless?"

              "Computer for somebody who has better things to do with his or her time than tweak stuff to make it work"?

          • by hedwards (940851)

            Windows 3.0 came out in 1990 and Mac OS came out in 1984. I'm not sure how exactly that makes MS first to dumb down the interface for the benefit of people lacking technical proficiency. And don't count those earlier revisions of Windows, they were complete unusable crap also they were after Mac OS was released anyways.

        • by iluvcapra (782887)

          How is Apple doing with respecting the intelligence level and freedoms of their customers?

          Apple does a lot better respecting the intelligence and freedoms of their customers than the average Apple-trolling slashdotter.

  • by catmistake (814204) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:16PM (#35323894) Journal
    Happened at least three times [theregister.co.uk]
  • I recall a rumor that Sun Microsystems was once interested in purchasing Commodore. Sun was supposedly interested in the home and entry workstation marketplace, and wanted the Amiga line for themselves. I wonder if there was any truth to it.

    Just imagine a SPARC based Amiga. That would have been interesting.
  • by Matey-O (518004) <michaeljohnmiller@mSPAMsSPAMnSPAM.com> on Saturday February 26, 2011 @12:28PM (#35323986) Homepage Journal

    I love the trolls' complete and total lack of objectivity. Hundreds of millions of iDevices sold, arguably the first economically successful tablet, a company that could turn on a dime and recreate their hardware jumping from PPC to Intel, and OS 9 to OS X in a seamless fashion, and gain enough financial success to ecplipse Microsoft...and yet 'nothing of value is lost'.

    Here's a hint for the younguns: There's room for more than one successful company in the world, and one being successful doesn't mean no others will be. If you don't like 'em, don't buy 'em...but to ignore their success is foolhardy. It's what makes people like Nokia lose their position in the economy.

  • I doubt there would be iphones if this had happened. Sun seems to suffer from the lack of marketing skill and understanding of how average users operates and developing an environment that is suitable for them.

    One of the reasons Sun has been doing so poorly as well, and why their business model is wrong and failing, is that the market for supercomputers and mainframes is shrinking. Businesses realise now that you can completely replace millions of dollars computer complexes of 30 years ago with a few $500 c

  • Have the same thoughts as Zander.

    Back in 1998 (I think) the company I work for was recommended/poised to buy this little company that was making 6 meg virtual environments called Vmware.

    Coolest shit I had ever seen up to that point, blew away Qview. Had we bought it, I have no doubt we would have screwed it up and set the whole world back by 5 years.

    Not to say anything negative about the company I work for, just that I doubt they would have had the dedicated vision and creativity to develop them into the c

    • ...of course, virtualization predated VMWare by two decades, and there were plenty of other people doing work on virtualization, at least in the research world. I doubt the world would have been set back 5 seconds if your company had purchased VMWare.
  • MP3 players predated the iPod, and someone else, probably Sony, would have owned that market. The iPod wasn't the innovation. The iTunes store was the innovation. Jobs' contribution was making micropayments work.

    Tablet computers had been tried many times before Apple. The hardware, and the wireless networking, weren't ready. Nor was the entertainment market. Early tablets were intended as general-purpose computers. Modern tablets are output-mostly devices, for which a touch screen is good enough.

    • ANYONE could have produced the iPod but NOBODY did. MS failed, Sony failed, Philips failed, Samsung failed, Sharp failed. EVERYONE failed. Apple with the iPod took an extremely fragmented industry and took the vast majority of the market share because they simply saw a market and ordered a million units so they got discounts nobody else could get and had high capacity for a reasonable price.

      Sony was far to busy worrying about its music sales to pick up the billions in sales for a quality MP3 player they cer

    • iPod + iTunes integration was the innovation, plus the pretty slick and easy to use UI. I've seen people puzzled by iRiver and Archos devices have no problems with iPods.

  • When two companies begin negotiations for one to buy the other, each has its own investment banker. The bankers only make money if the deal goes through. Even if the bankers know that the deal is stupid (like Time-Warner and AOL), they'll push it no matter how much value they know they'll destroy because otherwise, they get nothing. Even companies themselves will sometimes go through with a transaction that everyone begins to realize is bad the deeper they get into it, if only because they already put so mu
  • At the time in the mid 90s, SGI was still something of a leader in high end visualization, graphics, animation, 3D. Apple was a leader in easy-to-use GUI and pretty much the only game in town for 2D graphics and publishing.

    I always saw it as a good fit, with SGI providing the datacenter/high end technology Apple lacked while Apple could provide SGI with the end-user interface they lacked and the desktop-type end users.

    The OS merger would have been OS X before OS X -- IRIX back end with the Mac OS GUI.

  • by christurkel (520220) on Saturday February 26, 2011 @02:01PM (#35324674) Homepage Journal
    could have been called Snapple.
  • The Newton was failing to do what the iPhone and iPad later accomplished. If Apple had been sold, would they have continued to invest in a concept that had already disappointed Apple? I think McNealy is right - Sun was focused on Java and building the best platforms to run Oracle databases. Slashdot always thinks it's only about the PCs & consumer devices - but that was not where Sun ever focused their energy. Apple's market would have been very strange territory for Sun.
  • "If we had just grabbed the Intel Pentium chip and done a one-way and two-way pizza box with Solaris on it, Linux never would have happened. And we would have hit that whole next wave that was post-2000 and we would have had all the little startups.

    McNealy forgets that Linux was a labor of love. If Solaris had shipped on commodity x86 hardware from Sun, that wouldn't have changed the game. The initial userbase behind Linux were the hackers who had been doing work on it in university and in their spare time. When it came for dot-coms to hit the web, everyone already knew Linux. Even if Sun hardware was cheap, no one knew Solaris.

  • Who's to say that Sun wouldn't have come out with something functionally similar but less-Apple? That's not a bad thing: Sun technology has always been awesome and useful.

    I feel assured by Sun's awesomeness at the time that, if they'd bought Apple, they'd have taken the Newton concept and turned it into something incredible and usable. Sun was/is great at hardware design, hardware utilization, and simplified user interfaces. The Palm hegemony of the time wasn't really so awesome that Sun couldn't have taken

    • by JSBiff (87824)

      If Sun was so awesome, and run so well, why do they no longer exist?

      • by CAIMLAS (41445)

        Bad marketing and poor vision. Had they put focus behind certain projects (OpenSolaris, VirtualBox) they could easily be competing with both the bigger SAN providers and Citrix/VMware on the virtualization fronts.

        Apple prices would've fit well into their portfolio, though.

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