A Fight Brewing Over Java

Will Microsoft or Sun win over Java programmers?

At least a quarter-million software developers are working on programs written in Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java language--creating programs that can zip across the Internet and run on any kind of computer. Unfortunately for Sun, Java's popularity has put it squarely in the sights of mighty Microsoft Corp., which now aims to wrest control of Java from Sun.

FORK. The contest could boil over at the beginning of April. At separate conferences across the street from each other in San Francisco, Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates and Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft unit, will promote widely divergent visions of Java's future (table). "This is a battle for the future of software--and ultimately, the future of hardware," says Nova Spivack, executive vice-president of EarthWeb LLC, which runs a Java-program Web site.

Java programs run on any machine or operating software, not just on personal computers running the Windows operating system. They're used in half of the largest U.S. corporations, according to Forrester Research Inc. J.P. Morgan & Co., for instance, has a Java program that calculates the prices of options.

That makes Java a distinct threat to Microsoft. Its cash-cow applications such as Office 97 depend on the pervasiveness of Windows, which could be eroded if Java catches on. So Microsoft is pushing hard to lash Java tightly to Windows. One tactic: producing a software "engine" that makes Java programs run fastest on Windows. Some software developers suggest that Microsoft is adding so many nonstandard refinements that it will turn Java into its own, proprietary product.

In December, Sun marshalled Oracle Corp., Netscape Communications Corp., and 70 others to support "100% Pure Java." These companies have pledged to avoid tying Java programs to specific software and hardware. At the JavaOne conference, Baratz will outline plans to speed up Java programs and other steps to counter Microsoft.

But across the street, Gates will be trotting out enhancements to Microsoft's version of Java--and wooing developers with offers of financial and technical help. For Sun, says International Data Corp. analyst Evan Quinn, "it's a race against time"--and Gates.

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