“The Network is the Computer.” That phrase, coined by John Gage in the mid-1980s, was the tagline of Sun Microsystems for decades. Ray Rothrock, Sun’s former director of CAD/CAM marketing, in an interview with Cloudflare CTO John Graham-Cumming, explained the concept of “The Network is the Computer.” According to Rothrock, “[It] essentially said that you had one window into the network through your desktop computer…. And if you had the appropriate software you could use other people's computers (for CPU power). And so you could do very hard problems that that single computer could not do because you could offload some of that CPU to the other computers.”
In early 2010, Oracle acquired most of Sun’s assets, including both software (Java) and hardware (the SPARC line of processors). The famous tagline, it appears, was never discussed—or used or defended.
Maybe Oracle just didn’t like it. Maybe it got lost in the shuffle. Or maybe people at that time thought it was so tightly linked to Sun that it wouldn’t be worth anything to anyone else. Imagine another food besides Wheaties calling itself the Breakfast of Champions, or another airline besides United urging people to “Fly the Friendly Skies”
Nevertheless, if you abandon a trademark, it’s up for grabs. And so this month, Cloudflare—a decade-old company that runs the most popular content delivery network—grabbed it, announcing that it has registered it for itself.
John Gage, in another interview with Graham-Cumming posted on Cloudflare’s blog, says he’s fine with the slogan being picked up. Cloudflare’s existence and efforts in networked computers, he indicated, is a sign that Sun’s efforts were a success. “The phrase, ‘The Network is the Computer,’ resides in your brain. And when you get up in the morning and decide what to do, a little bit nudges you toward making the network work.”
What do other former Sun employees think? Are they happy the slogan, at the very least, carries some of Sun’s energy forward? Or do they think it’s odd to associate it with another company? I reached out to a Facebook group of Sun alumni to find out.
Larry Wake, who spent more than 20 years at Sun in various positions, recalled that “When Sun originated that tag line in the early 1980s, it was actually quite audacious. It was a stake in the ground [stating] ‘Computers should be networked, or they're… not computers. Well, at least, you're missing their potential by a country mile. They're “islands of automation,” and you can do better than that. Join us!’”
“Sun,” he continued, “put a network interface in every computer they built from day one. That was not even remotely the norm at the time. But the part people tend to overlook is that Sun didn't just say ‘networks are good.’ They wanted it to be *open* networking.” Wake recalls that at that time, if you wanted to network your computers, you paid extra for proprietary, non-interoperable networks: “SNA for your IBM mainframes, DECnet for your DEC minis, Novell Netware for your PCs. But Sun said, ‘Nah. Let's all use Ethernet and TCP/IP. Those are open standards.” Sun, he says, “Kept pushing the envelope throughout our history.”
“So,” Wake concluded, “all props to Cloudflare for recognizing a great tagline when they see one, but ‘The CDN is the computer’ is not quite as world-changing as what Sun did.”
To Larry Rutter, also a long-time Sun employee, The Network is the Computer “will always be a Sun slogan—trademark or no trademark. If I see someone else use it without attribution [to Sun], I’ll view it negatively.”
Christian Funke, a former Sun employee from Germany, is more forgiving. “They could have taken the slogan and never mentioned Sun,” he says, and “just some old nerds like us would have noticed. But they did mention [Sun] and by that appreciated the original genius, which is even more alive these days than it maybe was at that time. So I guess I am OK with it.”
So is Jonathan Lancaster, Sun employee #126, who was in the room when the phrase was coined. “I am OK with it having a new owner,” he says. “Sun was a pioneer in networking, open systems, [and] open source; and the concept and the idea continues to become more apparent with each leap forward in networking. I started with ‘bleeding edge’ 3 megabits per second Ethernet on a Sun 100u; now 5G wireless deployment is happening, and the difference between network and computer will be a blur.”
Lancaster pointed out that “The Network is the Computer” wasn’t the only slogan coined by Sun. It was predated, he says, by “Open Systems for Open Minds.” Sun’s rights to that phrase have likely also lapsed; I wonder if we’ll see any takers.
Correction made 30 July 2019
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 30 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.