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Sun and Microsoft: Baby Steps

By Peter Burrows When invitations went out for a May 13 press conference featuring Sun Microsystems (SUNW) CEO Scott G. McNealy and Microsoft (MSFT) counterpart Steve Ballmer updating their year-old détente, many observers figured it would be little more than a high-tech version of Entertainment Tonight. There would be some laughs but little news as these two old nemeses told stories of their unlikely marriage -- sort of like watching Democratic political consultant James Carville and Republican political strategist Mary Matalin talk about what makes their marriage work.

Well, that's about what happened. Upon taking the stage, McNealy quipped, "This is our photo opportunity, so get your cameras out, everyone!" And Ballmer followed up with "No, the scratch on my head was not from Scott," to laughter throughout the room at the posh Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto, Calif.

OUT OF THE LAB. Later, McNealy expressed relief that "nobody had to be given any 'time outs' and nobody got hurt" during the alliance's first year, and marveled that Microsoft would even help sponsor the annual Java One trade show later this year. "Who'd have thunk it," he said.

But there was a bit of substance. Certainly, nothing groundbreaking, like a promise to jointly sell products or merge their .Net and Java software-development technologies. But the companies did announce new standards and plans to enable customers to use one computer log-in to reach both .Net and Java-based software and Web sites, as well as some other licensing and technology agreements.

"Thanks to the work of hundreds of engineers on both sides, we're poised to leave the computer lab and enter the marketplace" with some of the jointly developed technologies. "That's the key message today," said Ballmer.

CUSTOMER PRAISE. McNealy suggested the lack of headline-grabbing, market-shifting news was by design. Rather than products or new services, he said he and Ballmer agreed the major point of the partnership was to ease customer headaches about having to separately maintain Microsoft and Sun-based technology operations.

The single log-on, which is accomplished by establishing links between Sun's Liberty identity-management scheme and Microsoft's Web services approach, was the most requested improvement from customers, the CEOs said. By limiting the number of passwords employees and customers have to remember, companies can save time and money on support calls. And software developers and systems integrators would not have to write in hooks to both approaches.

To bolster the point, Fred Killeen, General Motor's (GM) chief technology officer for information systems, was on hand to praise the partnership. "We appreciate the help from Microsoft and Sun," Killeen said. He also praised the companies' plans to continue work in other areas, such as creating ways for information technology managers to administer Windows and Sun-based gear from one computer console.

WARMING UP. The truth about the first year of this partnership is probably more dramatic than the Prozac-infused mood implied during their press conference. The CEOs hinted as much. "There were times when it looked like centrifugal forces or antibodies were going to make this thing not happen, but in the last three to six months, it has really come together," said McNealy. Added Ballmer: "It's like when the Berlin Wall came down. There hadn't been a lot of natural contact" between the two sides, and so it took a while for them to get comfortable with one another.

For both companies, it's a good enough start. Burrows is Computer editor in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau

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