Users breathe life into Sun

Leaders of Sun Microsystems Inc.’s U.K. user group are trying to breathe life into the anemic organization with a relaunch aimed at getting back to its core purposes: sharing knowledge and asking Sun tough questions.

The group, which has been in existence since 1992, has become dormant in recent years, so much so, the roughly 300 members still in its database haven’t been charged fees for three years, according to group spokesman Dave Shearer. That’s why the group relaunched Tuesday at the close of Sun’s annual SunLive event in London, said Shearer, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of Sun reseller Acardia Ltd.

“I think the time is right to relaunch now because the economic cycle is getting better, individuals want to build their skills and there’s just a lot more to talk about,” Shearer said.

At the SunLive event, there appeared to be some takers.

“User groups are pertinent, and I like to talk to people and share information face-to-face,” said Mark Calvert of Internet technology company Vital International Ltd.

Reactivation of the Sun U.K. group comes amid newfound interest in user organizations, according to Ray Titcombe, chairman of the IBM Computer Users Association, and head of a new “super” IT user group called the Strategic Supplier Relationship Group (SSRG). SSRG, due to launch April 20, will combine 10 U.K. user groups to try to improve the relationship between IT users and suppliers.

“You could see it as a sort of renaissance,” Titcombe said.

User groups started out as lobby groups to apply leverage to vendors but have evolved into channels for information and education, according to Titcombe. User group membership is a cheaper and more convenient way to come up to speed on products and technology than costly seminars and training sessions, Titcombe said.

Though Sun’s U.K. group is not currently a member of SSRG, its members are eager to get up to speed on topics such as Solaris10 and Sun’s surprise move last year to drop all legal disputes with Microsoft Corp. and enter into a broad technology agreement with its former rival, according to Shearer. “There haven’t been a lot of announcements on how that’s really going to benefit users,” he said of the Microsoft pact.

Sun also has a broader product portfolio to talk about than it had two or three years ago, particularly in terms of software, according to Jon Tutcher, Sun product and solutions marketing manager in the U.K.

Shearer added that the group is not commercially driven, but that it can use the combined voice of its members to ask questions about current and upcoming products and request informational calls or meetings with company executives.

The user group hopes to attract new members who are Linux and Microsoft users, according to Shearer. Those are users who wouldn’t have participated in the past when Sun was more hardware focused, Shearer said.

SunLive attendee Chris O’Brien, from business process outsourcing company Vertex Ltd., said that he’d be interested in joining the group, although he hadn’t heard of it previously.

“We are a big Sun customer so I think it would be useful,” O’Brien said. While the U.K. group is looking to grow its ranks and increase dialog between Sun and its customers, it’s difficult to say if there is similar momentum in other regions.

Tutcher and Shearer weren’t aware of any other Sun user groups in Europe, and said that the U.K. group gets queries from users on the continent. Since user groups are independent and run by individuals their activities are harder to track than if they were run by the vendor.

That said, Tutcher said that he would like to see more feedback from user groups, allowing “the tail to wag the dog.”

Top Sun executives seem to be realizing that increasingly, key technology decisions are being made by IT managers and other hands-on staff, rather than chief information officers (CIOs).

In a blog entry dated March 4, Sun President Jonathan Schwartz wrote that the availability of cheaper and free software means that technology choices aren’t being driven as much by budget demands and in turn CIOs are losing power over IT decisions.

But while IT managers are being recognized as key conduits for sharing information, employers are sometimes unwilling to let them take time out for user groups, according to Shearer.

“Unfortunately our experience has been that work pressures have kept members away,” Shearer said.

SunLive attendee Calvert confirmed that even though he was interested in joining the U.K. Sun users group, he might have problems getting time off work to go to meetings.

Despite the obstacles that have deflated the user group in the past, Shearer was hopeful the relaunch would reinvigorate the organization.

“The U.K. IT market is developing rapidly so we are going to put it out there and see what happens,” he said.

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