Would an IBM Takeover of Sun Be Good for Green, Too?

Big Blue's rumored interest in Sun Microsystems would give it Java's open mobile platform for cloud computing. Would green IT be set back?

Ever since The Wall Street Journal reported last week that IBM was in talks to buy Sun Microsystems for $6.5 billion in cash, the tech media has tried to dissect every reason for —and outcome of—such a deal. But little mention has been made as to how it could affect the two companies' green initiatives. IBM and Sun both have jumped into the green IT arena over the last few years, albeit from different angles. So would a combined company combine their efforts in the world of green IT, or halve them?

As Stacey has pointed out over at GigaOM, there's a lot of potential for synergy between IBM and Sun's cloud computing offerings, and the combined company would likely offer a robust enough array to help enterprise customers migrate to the cloud. That could be good news for Sun's Eco Responsibility initiative, launched in December 2005. At the outset, the campaign was part of an effort to bolster sales of Sun's new energy-efficient chips and server products with a "green" message, but Sun also made an effort to tie the campaign into its overall approach to computing. Because cloud computing and green IT have become so closely linked in many minds, an acquisition of Sun by IBM likely wouldn't put a damper on Sun's Eco Responsibility initiatives, though I'd be surprised to see IBM keep the "Eco Responsibility" branding.

By acquiring Sun, IBM would also gain control of Java, Sun's biggest brand success, if not its largest commercial one. (Sun may have swapped its SUNW stock ticker for JAVA in 2007, but in 2008 the company earned just $200 million from Java, on total revenues of $13.8 billion.) AMR Research suggests that Java, not Sun's server and storage products, could be the biggest attraction for IBM—including for IBM's recently launched Smarter Planet" campaign, which aims to use information technology to improve the efficiency and sustainability of diverse industries, from food and oil to water and electricity. Because Java, a pervasive and powerful development platform, is already an important part of many of IBM's software and services offerings, bringing it in-house could give IBM a serious advantage over other enterprise software vendors—including those, such as SAP, that seek to make their own sustainability management software plays.

Java's platform for cloud computing

Earlier this year, I spoke at length with Drew Clark, director of strategy for the IBM Venture Capital Group, about IBM's Smarter Planet initiative. He stressed the growing importance of the mobile handset: According to Clark, mobile access to the data generated from smart systems will play a key role in improving the effectiveness of such initiatives, particularly in consumer products. In order to bring smarter tools to consumers—from smart home energy management systems or smarter irrigation systems to smart parking and traffic tools—Clark said making information accessible and usable on a mobile device will be necessary. "The new IT platform has evolved from the desktop to the mobile handset," he said.

For Clark, the mobile platform that can run such systems has to be three things: easy to use, easy to develop for (preferably with a developer community behind it), and "as open as you can be," he said. "That's the magic formula." By acquiring Java, IBM would add just such a platform to its portfolio of tools. (Sun's Java ME is supported on Symbian, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry handsets, as well as unofficially on Android.

But that's just my take. Unsurprisingly, neither Sun nor IBM would comment on the potential impact of such a deal on their green initiatives.