Sun vs Microsoft - they aren't pulling any punches in their fight over Java

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Slanging matches are nothing new in the IT industry. But the verbal body blows being exchanged by two giants represent more than a clash of egos. Andy Oldfield takes a seat at ringside for a fight that is likely to determine the future of computing.

Predicting the twists and turns in the relationship between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, especially where Sun's Java programming language is concerned, is akin to second-guessing the behaviour of volcanoes. Periods of relative calm and seeming inactivity are interspersed with regular, yet not entirely predictable, eruptions, albeit of hot air rather than hot ash, and torrents of claims, vitriol and jockeying for market share instead of molten lava.

Sun's position is clear. It invented Java technology, it is its custodian, it licenses it, and listens to what vendors and users say before developing it. The language is based on freely available open standards - not proprietary ones such as Microsoft Windows. The company wants it to be used in its pure platform-free form instead of in an unholy alliance with Microsoft technologies such as ActiveX, Windows Distributed InterNet Applications (DNA) and strategies such as HTML extensions and "scriptlets", a synthesis of HTML and scripting languages used to create reusable components for building Web pages and applications that can be downloaded once, cached, and then rerun on demand - echoing the Java mantra of write once, run many times.

The stakes for winning control are high, not only because of the current and future markets for desktop computing and the Internet, but also because of the importance of Java and Windows CE in developing markets such as cars, television decoders, Internet telephony, Web television and mobile phones.

Let the bun-fight commence. "[Java] has become the software industry's genetic code, because the technology delivers value that no other technology can," Alan Baratz, president of Sun Microsystem's JavaSoft division, said last week. "Java is providing a real benefit to developers and customers. This benefit provides a very unique threat to Microsoft. Every single thing that Microsoft says and does is designed to preserve their monopoly. And they're a monopoly that is under siege. Why? Because the future of software is object-oriented programming. Java makes object-oriented programming make sense. The future of software is heterogeneous networks. Java makes them connect. The future of software is public networks and Java makes them safe."

Microsoft begs to differ. Its reworking of Java's slogan is "write once, run 42 per cent of the time". It points out that Java performance is relatively poor on MacOS and Windows 3.x and that it knows how to use extensions to Java to make it fly on its operating systems. "As Java services expand, pretty soon you've got an operating system on top of an operating system, and developers have to be careful they don't cut themselves off from advances in the underlying operating system," Paul Maritz, Microsoft group vice president of applications and platforms, said at a developers' conference in San Diego last week.

When Microsoft began removing Java applets from its own Web site and replacing them with scriptlets in the name of performance and compatibility, Sun responded by accusing it of using proprietary technology again. A charge Microsoft denies. "Scriptlets is an open technology based on existing specifications," Martin Gregory, Internet product manager of Microsoft UK, said.

"Seems to us like Microsoft is panicking and in denial," Baratz said. "They've got their heads in the sand. Unlike the rest of the industry, which is working vigorously to adapt to the new [open standards] model, Microsoft is going in the other direction. They are doing everything they can to push back a rising tide. They're trying to make their old strategy work. ... Every time Microsoft take on the Net with a proprietary technology they fail. [The Net] won't tolerate a proprietary technology that benefits one player.

"Six months ago, we sat and imagined what Microsoft would do when it woke up and realised that the entire software industry was now behind Java. Someone suggested that they'd wake up and retrench, that they'd take Java off their Web site ... that they'd attempt to reposition Windows as the answer. And we discussed this scenario and felt they'd never be so insane ... keep making the same mistakes over and over. Once again they are trying to take on the Net and once again, they will lose."

It's the latest colourful outburst in an ongoing story. In 1996 Microsoft, and other operating system vendors, were licensed to use Java. With Windows the world's most popular PC platform, Sun needed it to spread Java. But Microsoft used a mix of Java and its own technologies to produce what was widely regarded as the most stable and fastest implementation of Java for 32-bit Windows with Internet Explorer 3.0 in August. Two months later it produced its own visual Java development tool - Visual J++.

Those efforts were perceived as attempts by Microsoft to contaminate Java with extensions that would work only under Windows instead of any machine running a Virtual Java Machine (VJM) - the code that enables Java to work regardless of the underlying operating system. When, in February of this year, Sun released a new development kit for Java, Microsoft complained that it prevented some Java programs running on IE3. "They are really disenfranchising the largest group of Java users on the planet ... Windows users," Charles Fitzgerald, a program manager at Microsoft, said. "It's mind-boggling that they would do this."

The response of George Paolini, Sun's JavaSoft division director of communications, was: "[Microsoft] are blowing smoke. It's a very aggressive and untrue spin." Sun acknowledged that some Java programs would not run on Internet Explorer, but said that it was Microsoft's fault for using native interfaces not supported by the VJM and trying to lock Java developers into Windows. Fixing problems arising from that was Microsoft's responsibility - a licence obligation. Sun, backed by among others Netscape (itself involved in a browser war with Microsoft), launched a campaign for "100 per cent pure Java programs" that would run on every platform Java did.

"We're trying to do the best implementations [of Java] we can," Cornelius Willis, director of platform marketing at Microsoft, said in April. "We hope we can get users to ignore the religious rhetoric. All end users care about is good software." Microsoft saw Java as a useful programming language like any other, but with some potential advantages in economy of coding, security and cross-platform portability compared with Visual Basic or C++. Sun saw it as a platform-independent operating system in its own right with the ability to grab a share of controlling how the world's desktops are used from the near ubiquitous Microsoft Windows.

While that clash of perspectives was going on, Sun sought approval from the International Standards Organisation (ISO) to be recognised as a publicly available submitter (PAS) - an independent standards body that accepts proposals to change or improve a technology and then passes them on to a technical committee for ISO approval - although this is normally granted only to a consortium not individual companies. The initial application was not approved in July, but a slightly modified proposal which Sun is confident will be successful was resubmitted on 22 September. A final decision is due within 45 days of that date.

If approval is granted, Sun will gain control of the use of the Java name as well as undisputed control over the evolution of the technology. In turn that has prompted Microsoft (backed by Intel, Digital Equipment Corporation and Compaq) to claim that Sun is trying to become proprietary itself and that it should cede Java to the ISO to ensure that it remains an open standard.

Sun's chairman and chief executive, Scott McNealy, responded on CNBC last week that revoking Microsoft's licence if it does not comply with the terms could be the next move. Specifically, today's launch of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 could be pivotal, depending on how pure its implementation of Java is. "We have to look at the code," a Sun spokeswoman said. "We are just in a holding pattern until then ... we are taking this issue very seriously."

Agnostic Internet surfers might change their browser options and turn off Java and ActiveX support (along with image downloading) before heading out into the World Wide Web, but the Java wars will not go away that easily. At the least they are set for more eruptions, perhaps even spectacular ones. There is always the prospect of a major explosion, although extinction seems a remote possibility.