A Year Ago: Friction behind AOL-Netscape-Sun deal

First published: Mon, 10 May 1999 08:48:04 GMT

Netscape Communications, America Online and Sun Microsystems planned to do a deal prior to last November -- as Microsoft attorneys seem intent on proving -- the less-than-rosy relations between Netscape and Sun hardly corroborate that claim

There were numerous instances of Sun-Netscape clashes, right up until the companies announced the AOL-Netscape merger and subsequent Sun technology licensing deal, according to a deposition from Sun vice president Jon Kannegaard, released publicly on Thursday. Kannegaard was deposed on October 16 as part of the ongoing information-gathering process in the U.S. Department of Justice vs. Microsoft antitrust trial.

Netscape cancelled a project to develop a Java version of Netscape Navigator with Sun Microsystems Inc. because Netscape couldn't afford it, according to Kannegaard. Kannegaard's claims are at odds with the story Netscape told publicly about the reason it killed its so-called Javagator product. "It was explained to me that after Microsoft in their [Netscape's] words undercut their business, they could not afford to continue the project, so they had to reduce their engineering resources and cancel this project," Kannegaard said.

That is not the story Netscape told the general public. According to a story in ZD Net's sister publication, PCWeek published Feb. 26, 1998, Netscape said it was pulling back on Javagator in hopes of getting help from Network Computer manufacturers such as Sun and Oracle Corp.

Sun and Netscape were counting on the Java browser to boost popularity of Sun's JavaStation and of Java in general. The companies had announced the project on August 26, 1997, the same day that Sun, Netscape and IBM Corp. announced their intention to create a Java Porting and Tuning Centre. That centre was supposed to be staffed by engineers from all three companies who would work to synchronise the performance of Java across multiple platforms. However, in his deposition, Kannegaard said that the centre was never established because the companies never reached an agreement. The Kannegaard deposition refers to continual difficulties encountered by Sun and Netscape in working together to get Java established.

During Kannegaard's October deposition, Microsoft attorney Thomas Leuba cited an undated e-mail which described Sun's and Netscape's goals as "Stop competing; fight the common enemy by unifying browser efforts: 1 browser! Putting all the wood behind one arrow." Also, "Foster cooperation and collaboration between Sun and Netscape beyond browser efforts: 1 VM [Virtual Machine]!" Kannegaard said he didn't know whether those goals were communicated to Netscape.

In the summer of 1996, Netscape urged Sun to drop its Java license with Microsoft, according to another document cited by Leuba. On August 9, Netscape chief technology officer Marc Andreessen complained that Sun wasn't talking enough to Netscape and urged that Sun's HotJava browser be used as a platform for a new Navigator. Netscape was then working on low-end browsers for Network Computers in its Navio division. However, Navio chief Wei Yen was "resolute in not licensing things from Netscape to Sun to Microsoft," according to the document. Netscape had promised to port its Navio browser to Sun's JavaStation, which was announced in October of 1996, resulting in an e-mail from a Sun engineer complaining that Navio got more attention at the launch than Sun's own HotJava browser.

Kannegaard said Sun expected that Javagator would supplant HotJava as the browser of choice on Sun's JavaStations. The companies also discussed joint shipment and marketing of Javagator, according to a document cited by Leuba, although Kannegaard said that was never part of Sun's and Netscape's agreement. Kannegaard also said Microsoft was invited to participate with Sun and Netscape in developing the Java Foundation Classes, which are now known as Swing and are part of Java 2. At one time each of the three companies had their own Java classes.

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