Sun (Stanford University Networks) Microsystems was founded in February 1981 by Stanford graduates Vinod Khosla, Andy Bechtolsheim, Scott McNealy, and Bill Joy. The idea for Sun was started by Khosla who realized the then untapped market for mid-priced workstations. He then managed to gain the support of Bechtelscheim who was developing a system based on the Motorola 68K processors. Sun was led during the first few years by Khosla, but his frugal managment style was not liked by Sun's backers and he was replaced by McNealy who remains CEO today.
Bechtolsheim's project at Stanford University would become the first workstations sold by Sun and it was a success from the beginning. Its success was increased with a $40 million OEM contract with Computervision and the opening of its European offices the following year. The next year one of the most significant Unix technologies was developed, NFS, and released free-of-charge (Sun created, and marketed PC-NFS a few years later).
By 1988 Sun's revenues had surpassed $1 billion and it was the fastest growing company in the Silicon Valley. Within the past 6 years, the company that everyone thought would fail had become the de facto leader in the workstation industry, and formed an alliance with AT&T to create their own Unix release, SunOS (Now part of the Solaris Operating Enviroment). Sun had also created NeWS, a Postscript-based windowing system as a compeditor to the X Window System as the Unix GUI standard.
Despite the high sales of its Motorola based processors, by the late 1980s it was obvious that the the 68K series was becoming obsolete. To combat this Bechtelscheim went to the Sun board of directors to convince them to allow him to develop a new, extremely scalable processor. After a long conflict, including the idea to use Intel processors almost causing Andy to leave, he was given to go ahead to develop what became the 64-bit, RISC SPARC processor.
The result were first unleashed to the public in 1989 with the first, "pizza box" system, the SPARCStation 1 taking the lead in RISC systems by the following year. In 1993 the company went public on the Standard & Poor 500 making many people very rich.
However, it is probably the 1995 release of Java that Sun is know by most for. The "Write Once, Run Anywhere" idea of Java is not the first, although it sure as heck unleashed a load of annoying Java applets on the Internet (Speaking of the Internet, it partnered with Netscape in 1999 to provide messaging solutions). The same year also ends the SPARCStations with the relase of the UltraSPARC processors (Now at UltraSPARC III).
Sun is still a growing company with offices in 170 nations and is worth $18.25 billion. The company, especially Scott McNealy, is an hardcore opponent of Microsoft who has more than once attempted to sabotage the Java programming language (i.e. Visual J) and is often sued by Sun.