Network: New wave of fighting breaks out in code war

Guy Clapperton looks at the vexed question troubling IT futurologists: who really owns the rights to Java?
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Until last week, understanding who owned the Java was straightforward. Java is the lightweight programming language that powers much of the Internet and corporate intranets.

Sun Microsystems invented it, and was in charge of its future. True, there was a legal skirmish with Microsoft because Microsoft wanted to add functions to the system and Sun stated that under the current contract this was not allowed, but mainly buyers knew where they stood.

Last week, Hewlett-Packard came on to the scene - the same HP that tried to pull out of software a couple of years ago but now appears to have changed its mind. It has decided to create its own "Java virtual machine", (JVM) a key piece of software which runs applications rather than keeps the system stable.

This particular JVM is part of Personal Java, which works with the sorts of peripheral devices the companies see running the system in future: smart cards and set-top boxes for TV Internet access, for example, as well as the inevitable HP printers and hand-held devices.

Crucially for Sun, Microsoft has licensed HP's Java instead of Sun's offering for its Windows CE, the operating system that makes Microsoft- compliant hand-held appliances work. Microsoft has just lost a key point in its legal tussle with Sun, and has been ordered to remove the "100 per cent pure Java" logo from its products. It plans to fight the case, but now that HP is going to have a Java brand that may become equally acceptable, the urgency must be fading.

People thinking of installing a Java network could be forgiven for being puzzled. Analysts have been cautious in their welcomes to HP; one report on the Web suggests that the buyers will be the winners since competition will bring the price down, but others have suggested that if the two different Javas diverge, incompatibilities will throw developers and buyers into confusion.

Some welcome the move with open arms. IBM has a Java community of its own, and hints that HP is doing the right thing. "While speculation is circulating that this represents some new kind of rift in Java, the fact is that developing [virtual machines] for specific devices, whether they be HP printers or IBM mainframes, is part of the job for platform vendors," IBM tated. "This is not fragmentation - it is competition."

Sun is not so sure, and its CEO, Scott McNealy, has confirmed that it will be checking whether the HP version of Java is legal according to the terms of the original licence. Unlike Microsoft, HP plans to release a completely Sun-compatible version of the system, so if there is any fall-out it will not be an exact replay of the existing lawsuit. Sun is expected to examine the HP spec this week and decide whether it needs to contact its lawyers. The company does not believe it has given anyone the right to "clone" Personal Java.

Luigi Fonda, professional services manager for the Java developer Plexus, also had his reservations because of Microsoft's involvement. "Microsoft's objective so far seems to have been to fragment the Java market," he said, referring to its own non-standard version of Java development tools. "Java is the only serious obstacle in its way of total domination of the desktop."

As it is, the emergence of the system is not setting the IT world alight. Last week, Sun announced the release of the first Java Stations, the computers that underpin a Java network. Curiously, it buried the announcements in a couple of case studies - there was no razzmatazz, no flag-waving and no signs that this was the next big thing in computing. Given that Sun was running a huge Java conference in San Francisco, called JavaOne, more fanfare might have been expected.

And although Toshiba has confirmed that it will make notebook computers designed to run with Java, Mitsubishi has put its plans for Java systems on hold. The feeling is that something is coming adrift, and the timing of the uncertain messages from Sun about the status of Hewlett-Packard's Java could not be worse.

All this is happening against a backdrop of conflicts over standards. Last year, Sun won the right to apply to the International Standards Organisation to make Java a standard. Commentators queried the idea of having a profit- oriented company owning a standard and being its sole arbiter, and HP was vocal in its opposition.

It could even be that the HP JVM is a more visible response; whether it is or not, the programming community will be watching HP and Sun carefully.