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DID SUN BUY APPLE? THAT WAS the loudest buzz question in Silicon Valley last week, as insiders tried to guess the outcome of talks over the possible merger of two icons of the digital revolution. Apple Computer and Sun Microsystems, two vastly different companies, were haggling over the buyout of Apple even as an Apple executive insisted that their company was "not for sale." But it was. Last Tuesday, Sun was said to be offering $33 a share, about the price at which Apple is trading on the stock market, or roughly $4 billion. By Thursday, Sun was reportedly offering $23 a share--nearly a slap in the face for one of the originators of personal computing.

One day Apple was a major technology company with assets to make any self-respecting techno-conglomerate salivate. The next day Apple was a chaotic mess without a strategic vision and certainly no future. Sun Microsystems was clearly trying to get Apple for a cheap price: something between $3 billion and $4 billion for a company that sold $11.1 billion worth of computers in its last fiscal year and is generally ranked as No. 2 or No. 3 in shipments of personal computers worldwide.

Apple lost $69 million in its latest quarter and has an uneven history of making money over its lifetime. But for Sun, a $5.9 billion maker of workstations and network computers, the acquisition would make considerable sense. It would nearly triple the size of the company and give Sun a major position in three key markets for computer systems: workstations, networking and personal computers. It would introduce Sun to a commercial field it knows very little about: namely, making and selling computers for both business and ordinary consumers.

It would also satisfy Sun CEO Scott McNealy's strong desire to compete eyeball to eyeball with Microsoft in personal-computer operating systems and software. Indeed, Sun has won glowing reviews for its new Java programming language, which the company pitches as a way to write new kinds of programs that work best on the World Wide Web. Sun might be able to use Java, which does not depend on any one computing system for its success, to reinvigorate the Macintosh line.

But the acquisition would also give Sun a major headache, because Apple is arguably one of the worst-managed companies in the industry. Apple has a host of problems that need to be addressed immediately to ward off the doom that many people have predicted for years. Cleaning up that mess would tax Sun's management team, possibly beyond its capabilities, and could distract it from Sun's own successful business. Even if Sun could figure out how to solve the short-term problems, it would inherit all the bigger conundrums that have bedeviled Apple for most of its brilliant, exasperating life. So the bet for Sun is monstrous: acquiring Apple could destroy either or both companies.

What is not clear is what Apple hopes to gain from the negotiations. But that's nothing new, because Apple's aims have not been clear for years. That is precisely the problem that has landed the company in a fix where it is apparently negotiating to sell itself for a bargain-basement price.

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