And like so many things with Sun in the 90's, it was way too late and aimed at the wrong market. X terminals became popular at the very end of the spinning rust era, when maintaining storage was a big part of the IT budget. Drives would die suddenly, they were hard to replace due to all the OS muckery required post-install, they remained very expensive relative to the rest of the system, they were much slower than network in general, and in practice half their capacity was dedicated to storing the same bytes of software anyway. Putting all that complexity into a single system with redundancy and central maintenance was a win.
But it was ephemeral. By the mid 90's, innovation in the PC world had pushed storage prices way down and reliability WAY up. No one wanted an X terminal by 1996, they'd just grab a 486 and put Linux on it. This was the market Sun should have been worried about, and they were oblivious.
I know this, because my very first job in 1996 handed me an X terminal, and I grabbed a 486 out of a closet and put Linux on it instead. The terminal did have a bigger display, though.
It's interesting. Sun didn't have anything to compete at the ultra low-end. They tried to sell Amiga 3000's as entry-level workstations, but Commodore, which was managed by complete imbeciles, wasn't interested.
In fact the 386i was a nice piece of hardware at the time, priced a little under where the Sun-3 68020 machines were placed, with somewhat better performance. But they were launching SPARC at the same moment and this thing just got lost in the shuffle. It was a technically good product, but it was a marketing puzzle that just couldn't be solved.
At one site, the "tech doc" people got the SLC. I felt bad for them because they were running Interleaf and FrameMaker (two nice solid publishing tools with page layout aspects), plus our CAD-ish products... on a smaller screen than all the Software Engineers and EEs had on their adult-sized SPARCstations.
We did experimentally get an IPC or IPX for one engineer. Most all Sun workstations up to that point were pizza boxes, but I recall the first IPC/IPX had arrived one afternoon. And the weird non-pizzabox form factor, and general curiosity about whatever Sun was doing next, was why three of us went back inside from a company social event, to watch while one person set it up (installed more SIMMs, etc.).
Based on my recollection of who got the IPC/IPX, he was a great engineer, who then left software development, and now owns cool pubs in Portland, so maybe he really wanted a SPARCstation 2 instead. (Just a joke; I like the IPX, and when I wanted to personally buy a SPARC for home, I chose an IPX.)
Industrial-design-wise, Sun liked pizza boxes for workstations (they fit exactly under the bases of the huge CRTs, and fairly easy to open and get access to all the components), plus putting peripherals in a few form factors of what we called "shoeboxes" (but no longer shoebox-sized). (The 386i models had shoeboxes that attached atop the PC-ish minitowers.) The various peripherals you see stacked atop the IPX in that post are of the incarnation of shoeboxes that went with with latest pizzabox workstation chassis industrial design (3/80, 4/60, 4/65, 4/75, and maybe others, until the SPARCstation 10 (?) evolved the design a little). So the IPC and IPX looked like Sun was maybe thinking "Hey, we could also put the workstation in this peripheral form factor, and it could open in half". And so it seemed the lunchbox workstation was born.
I wonder whether the IPC and IPX moving the floppy drive (which I think was hardly ever used, when we had networks, CD-ROM, and QIC/Exabyte/DDS) to a more prominent position-- was an accident of fitting things into the internals, or because the peripherals all had their openings on front, or to signal something about the market positioning/differentiation of these workstations.
There was a lot of innovative design in the 90s when computers transitioned from being viewed as industrial-like equipment to friendly, humanist tools. I might just be getting old, but there were some really great designs in the 90s. Even things old PC towers like the Inwin Q500 still look good, despite not being the latest fashion.
This brings back memories. Fond ones, actually. Sure, the machines were sluggish and limited (e.g. 32MB RAM) by today's standards, but they were still very useful. Somehow, the sun systems didn't bog down terribly with load, so they were pleasant to use, since you knew the limitations. And the hardware was lovely. I particularly remember the keyboards, which were easy to use and very robust.
The video on this website is worth a view, especially for those interested in computing history.
I always found it amusing that Sun systems were lumped in with other Unix vendors and called "proprietary": it used IEEE-1496 SBus, IEEE 1275 OpenBoot, and the SPARC architecture could be licensed by anyone (Fujitsu, Tadpole, etc), and later CPU designs were released under the GPL.
Sun used open standards when they suited their purpose, but they also tried for proprietary lock-in. Their alternatives to X Windows, for instance, had licenses that weren't open in any real sense.
And sometimes they tried to have it both ways -- licensing Java, for example, in ways that seemed to allow for third party adaptations and implementations, and then playing games with access to the Java TCK (the test suite) to try to prevent the Apache group from actually shipping the alternate implementation they'd developed (Apache Harmony) -- see, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apache_Harmony#Difficulties_to...
Sun was better than some of the other vendors at generating "open" buzz for themselves, but it wasn't really clear to me at the time, nor is it now, that they were better at actually being open than, say, DEC.
IIRC, OpenBoot was not called OpenBoot, nor was it open, until long after Sun started using it. The same was the case for the SPARC processors; the GPL relase was the classic last-ditch efforts of a failing business. Sun, had they succeeded, would almost certainly have stayed as closed as possible.
IEEE 1275 was published in 1994 AFAICT, which was when Sun was still robust. Sbus/IEEE 1496 was published in 1993 (though the first Sun's started using it in 1989). Before that Sun used VMEbus for their Motorola 68000-based systems.
SPARC was licensed starting in the early 1990s as well:
They don't have quite the same iconic looking design, but a bargain if you have the Sparc retro bug is the Sun Blade 100/150. They sell on eBay for around $100-$200, and typically have a UltraSparc IIe 500Mhz processor and 256-512MB of RAM. They also support IDE, so no need for $100 of SCSI2SD.
Quasi-off-topic: I might have two SunBlade and one UltraSparc workstations looking for a new home in exchange for a postage contribution (they are based in the UK) and, if you feel so inclined, a contribution either to the british heart foundation or our research group (which is primarily funded by them).
These were used as high-end workstations to drive MRI scanner research consoles back in "the day" – most vendors used sun unix at some point, before slowly transitioning to linux. They all have dual NICs and are well engineered, powerful machines. Drop me an email if interested [see my profile for details].
Those SPARCStations are fantastic little machines, I still have an LX, has even a 486 SBUS card, was my main PC mid 90s for years (I run win95 on the card)
Most issues with the machine were :
bad NVRAM battery, can be fixed by "hack" the NVRAM chip
and failed (caps leaking) PSU, its dead easy to rewire it with a SFF PSU (alas the power button on the keyboard does not work to power-on the machine)
I first came across those bad boys at university. Later on I had several generations of SPARC stations 4, 5 and 20 with 24 bit graphics. They were pretty nice to use and Linux had been ported to this architecture. Bus errors, oh the joy. Last Sun machine I had was an Ultrasparc Blade 2000 but finally left that behind for the amd64 architecture a decade ago. ARM will be next if it's more powerful.
Compared to the PC BIOS, OpenBoot (Open Firmware, IEEE 1275) was quite advanced. Network booting is something that took PCs quite a while to get (PXE), and platform-independent drivers still don't exist.
The Sun part number is SUN 300-1055, and the model number is APS-02 if you end up trying to find a replacement. It's a 65W power supply that provides +5V/9A, +12V/1.5A, and -12V/0.1A if you want to frankenstein a cheaper PC power supply in as another comment suggested.