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In early 1991, engineers at Sun Microsystems created a small team to discover whether there were any opportunities for the firm in consumer electronics. At that time---Windows 3.0 had been out for barely a year, and audio CDs were still considered advanced technology---Sun was known only for its expensive and high-powered Unix workstations, so this foray into such a different market may have seemed unusual.

But Sun’s initial research had uncovered a potential market that was not that dissimilar to the TCP/IP-based networks that Sun had pioneered for its workstations: Time Warner and other cable giants of the day would need interactive and interconnected set-top boxes for TVs. These boxes would run on a diverse set of hardware, and Sun figured it could create a platform that would virtualize the hardware and work anywhere.

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