Network: The royal hunt of the Sun

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The Independent Culture
The journey towards programs that will run on a variety of computer types - the promise of the Java language - has been diverted through a legal battle between Sun and Microsoft. Ian Grayson looks at Sun's campaign to reassure current and prospective users that Java will remain true to its word.

Like a protective parent guarding its offspring, Sun Microsystems has launched a world-wide campaign to counter what it sees as a significant threat to its Java programming language.

The campaign comprises a branding programme, a "how to" guide for businesses keen to try Java, and the establishment of a network of design centres around the world that will help companies create computer systems using the language.

When Sun launched Java little more than two years ago, it heralded it as a technological breakthrough that would enable the development of software programmes that could run on any type of computer platform. For example, a programme written in Java could be run on a personal computer, a Macintosh, a Unix system or any other type of computer without alteration. Prior to Java, such cross-platform moves would have required the programme to be extensively rewritten.

This idea captured the IT world's imagination to the extent that there are now almost 700,000 programmers using the language and more than 800 books to tell them how to do it.

However the journey towards this platform-independent Utopia has run into trouble. According to Sun, rival software company Microsoft has made alterations to the Java code to make it more compatible with its Windows operating system. Microsoft disagrees and the matter is now the subject of a legal battle between the two companies.

One of the primary objectives of Sun's campaign is to counter this move by Microsoft by reassuring current and prospective users that Java will remain platform independent.

In Berlin last week, Sun's chief executive officer, Scott McNealy, told a 5,000-strong gathering of computer programmers, Java users and prospective customers that Java would remain true to its original concept.

"The future of Java is secure," he said. "We are just concerned that people are going to wait for this court battle to be over before they get involved - that would be a great shame."

McNealy outlined Sun's new "100% Pure Java" programme, a branding initiative designed to ensure programmes conform with the language's strict rules. A new certification centre is being established in Europe that will provide a programme testing service to ensure compliance. Those programmes that pass will be allowed to carry the 100% Pure Java brand.

The European centre, to be based in the Netherlands, will be operated by Telefication BV, a hardware, software and telecommunications equipment testing company.

"Having accents in a spoken language is fine as people can still understand one another," McNealy said. "But you can't have them in computing. If you change the structure of the language even slightly it won't work." While ensuring that programmes comply with the rules of Java is the main reason for the campaign, it also provides Sun with a way of distancing itself from Microsoft's Java activities.

"What it comes down to is the fact that Microsoft has decided that it doesn't want to be compatible," he said. "It must feel that its customers do not want platform independence."

In an effort to maintain the Java momentum despite this very public battle with Microsoft, Sun also announced the establishment of a world-wide network of 200 Java Centres. The majority of centres will be owned and operated by Sun while others will be run in conjunction with partners such as service firms EDS and Cap Gemini.

Designed to meet what Sun claims is a growing demand from companies, the centres will offer access to Java experts who can offer advice on how the technology can be used. Advice will vary from simple explanations of the technology to design of new systems. The centres complement Sun's "Road to Java" programme, also outlined at the Berlin event. This programme sets out the steps companies should follow if they wish to begin using Java on their computer systems.

Sun is also practising what it preaches. The company is in the process of rolling out Java-based software applications throughout its operation.

"A year ago we put a stake in the ground and said that all computer clients in our company would be deployed with a Java browser," said McNealy. "We are now about half-way there and moving forward all the time."

Eventually all of Sun's 23,000 employees will use desktop devices running Java-based software. The company's 300 internal applications are being rewritten using the language.

As well as software, Sun has plans in the hardware arena. Its JavaStation network computer launched earlier this year will be improved with the release of a new model in early 1998.

The company is also working with other hardware vendors to encourage the use of Java in devices as diverse as telephones, smartcards and even rings. McNealy demonstrated a ring containing a microprocessor running Java that enabled its wearer to open a lock.

"Try doing that with Windows," he said.