> in their later years they were really quite progressive in their outlook and approach.
This is a common misconception about Sun. In fact, they were quite progressive from the beginning. They embraced a hybrid open/closed model from day one, for instance. They opened up some key technologies, such as NFS and SPARC. They maintained huge, comparatively, research budgets, with relatively few strings attached to productization of that research. Through the late 90s and very early '00 (Dotcom era) they were under constant pressure from institutional investors to cut research funding, but didn't.
In the end, though, I have to agre. I miss Sun (though my friends and co-workers probably do not miss me talking about how great Sun is)
One of the problems with corporate R&D in general it seems: what's successful for businesses and what's good for technological advancement often seem not to be in sync. Some of the best stuff has come from notoriously unprofitable groups, like the old Xerox PARC, which benefitted the whole sector, but not its originators.
Unlike most corporate R&D, PARC did good stuff. It was Xerox HQ that was exceptionally stupid. They had all the technology, but managed to do very little with it. Silicon Valley companies picked it up and ran with it.
Most big corporate research labs did good work. PARC, Bell Labs, IBM Research, Sun Labs, even Microsoft Research have all done "good stuff." Much of it critical to today's understanding of technology and computer science.
Certainly PARC has been instrumental in many areas of technology, I don't think it's fair to dismiss most corporate research. In fact, at least in the land of technology, most corporate research has done good stuff.
Making cool stuff and being progressive actually kept them alive longer.
When x86's starting eating away the profits of their SPARC business, it was abundantly clear they would have problems down the road. Computing platforms tend to move up and what's on your desktop now may be powering servers ten years from now (quite possibly because by then people will have spent ten years writing and learning how to write software for it).
Sun tried to disrupt the desktop with the SunRay series, but they never got to the right price point. I'd have loved to have a Niagara-based desktop and I bet that had one been available for Unix enthusiasts, Firefox would be rendering pages and tabs on dozens of different threads.
People often discount that, but I can say it from experience. Back in 1998, I had two machines on my desk at work: a 400 MHz Pentium II (or III) and a dual-processor 200 MHz Pentium (both running Windows NT 4). While the single processor was somewhat faster, the overall experience of the dual processor machine was much smoother, with very few pauses and hourglasses. A lot of software today is single-threaded for the sole reason processors have only recently become multi-threaded.
And x86's only became multi-core/thread after the NT kernel became mainstream.