Behind The Brawl Over Java

Did Sun's McNealy sue Microsoft out of pique or principle?

Perhaps the best sign that Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java software really had the makings of something big was the grudging endorsement that Microsoft Corp. gave the new technology in December, 1995. On the eve of a big marketing event designed to convince customers, analysts, and software developers that Microsoft was really a player on the Internet, Microsoft hastily hammered out the outlines of a licensing agreement with Sun to use Java technology to create programs to run across the Net. It seemed like an incredible concession from Microsoft--usually the company dictating standards--to acknowledge Sun's leadership.

Microsoft may have needed Sun's technology then to prove its bona fides in the emerging world of Internet software. But not any longer. In the past two years, the company has made a huge push into cybersoftware. Its Web browser, Internet Explorer, has 36% of the market, up from 4% two years ago. And, at the introduction of the latest version, IE 4.0 in late September, Chairman William H. Gates III boasted that the company would soon grab 50% of the browser market and supplant market leader Netscape Communications Corp. Analysts say it's doable, since Explorer will be built into a new version of Windows that will ship with new PCs next year.

With the battle with Netscape proceeding nicely, Microsoft has turned its attention to Sun--and a more important fight. The two companies have been wrangling privately for the past several months over how Microsoft will use Sun's Java technology. Sun, which has built a massive following for the new programming language, is determined to make Microsoft conform to its Java standard--and not make it simply another part of the Windows software empire. After negotiations broke down, Sun took the battle public on Oct. 7 with a breach-of-contract suit filed in federal court in San Jose, Calif. Sun is charging that the way Java is used in IE 4.0 violates terms of their licensing agreement.

The technical issues behind the suit may be arcane, but the conflict between Sun and Microsoft could have profound importance. Java, according to Sun and its many supporters, is the technology that can make all sorts of computers work together easily across a network--and vastly reduce the importance of conventional computer operating systems such as Windows. Java programs can run on any device that contains a bit of code called a Java Virtual Machine. Virtual Machines are now embedded in 80 million Web browsers. And because none of them have to rely on Windows to run the programs they get over the Net, the Microsoft operating system's pivotal role is diminished--and the software giant's leverage is reduced.

As a result, Java is fast emerging as the first new software "platform" since Windows--a foundation on which software developers and companies build new application programs. Already, hundreds of corporations, from Federal Express and FTD to Banco do Brasil and Scottish Telecom, are using Java. One popular approach is to use Java programs to pave over vexing differences among their myriad computers. Analysts reckon that Java, which has the backing of IBM, Oracle, Netscape, and some 700,000 programmers at software companies and in corporations, is perhaps the only remaining technology that can challenge Microsoft's dominance.

ABSOLUTELY FROZEN. Little wonder that Sun is playing hardball. But in suing Microsoft, the company takes on tremendous risks. The legal battle could take months--or years--to resolve. And that could slow Java's momentum. Corporations and software developers want to be sure that they're writing to a single standard--so they won't have to rewrite programs later. Until the outcome of the Sun-Microsoft battle is clear, they may just hold off writing Java programs. "It absolutely freezes us from doing anything with Java until this is resolved," says Robert J. Hogan, an information-services manager at athletic wear manufacturer Russell Corp., which is adopting Java.

In essence, Sun says Microsoft has decaffeinated Java--and slipped a Mickey in it to boot, all in an effort to tweak the standard and make Java Microsoft's own brew. Sun claims Microsoft left out two key technologies to help Java run anywhere--and secretly inserted other software so programs written with its version run slowly or not at all on anything but computers using Microsoft's Windows software.

Sun wants Microsoft to fix the software or quit using the Java trademark--or it may yank Microsoft's right to use Java altogether. "They're really showing their stripes here," says Sun Chief Executive Scott G. McNealy. "Of the 117 Java licensees, we've got one that doesn't want to play."

Nonsense, replies Cornelius Willis, Microsoft's director of platform marketing. There's no secret code, he says--Microsoft is just trying to make Java, which Sun concedes is still a work in progress, run better on Windows. Meanwhile, Microsoft will distribute as many copies of IE 4.0 as its servers can spit out--flooding cyberspace with what Microsoft brags is the best Java around. "We could be the subject of 60 lawsuits and it wouldn't impede our ability to ship products and sell products," says Willis.

The suit also exposes Sun to criticism from companies that want the company that invented Java to make the technology more of an "open" industry standard and less of a proprietary technology--similar to Windows itself. "Scott has personally talked his way into a huge corner on this one," says Nick Earle, worldwide Marketing Manager at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Enterprise Systems Group.

For Microsoft, defying the Java bandwagon carries its own risk. Some customers say they'll be less inclined to use Microsoft's Internet software if it's not fully compliant with Java. Alan Baratz, president of JavaSoft, Sun's Java division, says Sun felt obligated to take action to back its pledge to 116 other Java licensees that it would maintain Java's "write-once, run-anywhere" promise. Sun says six months' worth of efforts to work out differences with Microsoft failed on Sept. 28. Microsoft says Sun is trying to impose requirements that weren't in the original contract--details of which neither side will reveal.

Still, if Microsoft's intent is to derail Java's progress, it may be too late. Indeed, Sun doesn't actually need Microsoft in its corner to keep Java percolating. But while the matter sits in legal limbo, that's small consolation to customers. "We just want everyone to get along," sighs Reno Marioni, director of product marketing for Infoscape Inc., a San Francisco Java software maker. In the Java wars, that's wishful thinking.