Tom Petrocelli's take on technology. Tom is the author of the book "Data Protection and Information Lifecycle Management" and a natural technology curmudgeon. This blog represents only my own views and not those of my employer, Enterprise Strategy Group. Frankly, mine are more amusing.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand

I've been watching the fratricidal spat between Sun and NetApp with increasing interest. Since I started working for, I've been much more immersed in philosophy and mechanics of intellectual property. Since patent litigation is complex and I'm not a lawyer (nor do I play one on TV), I am not going to comment on the validity of the suits. If you are technical enough, go ahead an read the patents involved and the legal filings. Draw your own conclusions.

What I don't understand is why there wasn't another way. Patent suits in the computer industry are notoriously bad for both companies. For those without long-term memory, please recall the patent infringement suit that Crossroads brought against a bunch of companies including Chapparal. Look how that worked out for them. They are not exactly Brocade now, are they? That might be a bad comparison given Brocade's recent legal woes but you get the picture.

In the computer industry, patent litigation breeds several effects. One, people stop buying stuff from both companies. Let's face it, do you want to buy a product that the company may not be able to sell in the future. Anyone who doesn't think that the SCO suit effected the adoption of LINUX is kidding themselves. The result of this suit will be to slow down sales of NetApp boxes as much as the ZFS file system. Since Sun is giving it away as open source, you have to wonder who this will hurt more, at least in the short term.

The second effect is to reduce the collaboration so necessary to the functioning of the industry. Suits of this nature build mistrust and fear. This, in turn, makes it less likely that companies will want to work together on certain projects. Who wants to work with the folks that might sue them tomorrow.

What is almost sad is how these two companies have let an opportunity pass by. That's a polite way if saying they had a chance here and screwed it up. Let's face it, Sun's storage offerings have always been weak. They are the almost-rans of the storage industry.

NetApp is constantly fighting for business against the stronger EMC, IBM (with its legions of loyal customers), and a host of smaller, nimble competitors. A connection with Sun would have benefited both. Sun has the breadth of hardware and software products and NetApp the storage strength. Instead of beating the heck out of each other, they should have decided to work together, whatever that takes.

I firmly believe that intellectual property is the cornerstone all industries, especially technology industries. It does need to be protected strongly. However, like all assets, it's there to be used constructively. This is not a good use of valuable assets. Instead, the patents are being used as blunt weapons. Sort of like using a gold bar to beat someone upside the head, rather than buying food.

So, here's my message to Sun and NetApp, two companies I respect - Stop fighting like dysfunctional siblings. Instead, bury the hatchet now (but not in each other's heads) and work together. I will even propose something radical - a merger. I'm sure the financial people will tell me I'm stupid but from a market perspective, it makes sense. You would end up with two stronger companies, better positioned to compete with the tech companies emerging in Asia and the already strong domestic competitors.

Make love, not war!

DISCLAIMER: Now that I work for another company other than my own, I need to point out that this blog is all my own thoughts and opinions. I do not represent in it any of the positions of my company. If you think it's stupid, then I'm the one you should blame. If you like it, then I'm brilliant but so is for hiring me. While I'm entitled to my opinions, when I'm doing my thing as an executive, I keep some of them to myself.

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