Sun Seeks a Java Jolt

Does brand matter? It does to Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW  ) . Quoting from the blog of CEO Jonathan Schwartz:

Brands, like employees, aren't expenses, they're investments. Measuring their value is more art than science. But there's no doubt in my mind more people know Java than Sun Microsystems. There's similarly no doubt they know Java more than nearly any other brand on the Internet.

Thus, Sun will next week change its ticker from what you see above to JAVA.

A caffeinated history
For those who need a brief introduction, Java is a programming language created in 1995 by a team led by Sun software developer James Gosling. What made it special was Java's use of what came to be called virtual machines -- software structures that could be made to resemble the native workings of any computing platform.

Hence, when it was formally introduced, Java became known as the language that would allow developers to write code once and run it anywhere. "Write once, run anywhere" even became a company slogan. (Previously, code would have to be written and compiled for one physical type of hardware, as Windows is usually tethered to a PC and the Mac OS is tethered to a Mac.)

But Java morphed over time to become more than a language. Today, it is a system of interlocking parts, all built with the original Java language, and used for creating software that runs on the Web and in other network-connected devices. Smartphones, for example.

Evolution of a computer company
For Schwartz, Java is Sun in many respects. Quoting once more:

But SUNW represents the past, and it's not without a nostalgic nod that we've decided to look ahead ... Java is a technology whose value is near infinite to the Internet, and a brand that's inseparably a part of Sun (and our profitability).

Given Java's popularity, I find that last part easy to believe. And software, especially licensed software, as Java is, tends to sport exceptional gross margins. There's only one problem: we have no way of determining Sun's Java revenue, or even its software revenue. (Management breaks out revenue by products and services only.)

That's no small problem. Sun also sells the Solaris operating system and the StarOffice desktop suite, which is now being distributed by Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) . So even if we had an idea of Sun's total software revenue, we'd have no way to quantify what portion of the total directly relates to Java.

It might not be much. Here's how Schwartz put it in January of last year, during the same interview in which he predicted that Sun would soon break out its revenue from software sales:

Java is the standard that allows us to talk to every cell phone, every set-top box, every computer in the world. Let me assure you that the revenue we get from the license is a tiny value of the revenue we get from the infrastructure behind the networks of those devices.

Translation: even though Java revenue is extremely profitable margin-wise, it's a mere rounding error for a $13 billion company.

Well, OK. Calling Java-related revenue a rounding error is too harsh, especially when all we know for sure is that last year Sun booked $5.7 billion in server revenue and $4.7 billion in services revenue. Roughly $2.7 billion in product revenue remains unaccounted for, a portion of which surely derives from Java licensing.

Nevertheless, Schwartz's earlier comments suggest that that portion is probably pretty small.

A new Sun, rising?
If, like me, you're wondering if the ticker change somehow presages an exit from the bare-knuckles server business, Schwartz warns not to get too excited:

To be very clear, this isn't about changing the company name or focus -- we are Sun, we are a systems company. And we will always be a derivative of the students that created us, Stanford University Network is here to stay.

Really? OK. Sun's improving financials suggest this model can still work. Yet I wonder if Schwartz suspects, as I do, that it isn't the best model. That the company would be better off retiring from the ring, where Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) , Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) , and IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) have delivered bruising punches year after year after year.

As a software company, Sun would have different but more profitable battles to fight, which means more resources for improving Solaris and working with Google, among other things. In short: there's opportunity here, even if seizing the opportunity would require an extreme makeover of the company.

I'd be there for the unveiling. I'm betting most investors would, too. But that's not to be. Not yet, anyway. For now, Sun's ticker teaser amounts to little more than corporate botox. Sorry, but I can't watch.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers was once a Sun employee and shareholder. He wasn't very good at being either. He does, however, excel at owning shares of IBM. Find Tim's portfolio here and his latest blog commentary here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is late to bed and early to rise and, as such, always gets the prize.

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