Steve Malone: 'IT's Like This...'

If Andy Grove's maxim, "only the paranoid survive" holds true, then Microsoft and Sun will live to ripe old ages, albeit a twitchy, twilight, looking-over-the-shoulder existence. This is the only conclusion one can safely draw in the long running battle over whether Microsoft is entitled or not to slap a 'Java compatible' logo all over its Internet Explorer range of products.

If Andy Grove's maxim, "only the paranoid survive" holds true, then Microsoft and Sun will live to ripe old ages, albeit a twitchy, twilight, looking-over-the-shoulder existence. This is the only conclusion one can safely draw in the long running battle over whether Microsoft is entitled or not to slap a 'Java compatible' logo all over its Internet Explorer range of products.

The temptation for most of us is to sit back and enjoy the fun. I mean after all, who cares whether Windows 98 come out of the gate sporting a Java logo or one for Thomas the Tank Engine? It's not as if Microsoft won't be shipping the thing without the Java VM (virtual machine) built in. Even if Sun had a rush of blood to the head and actually managed to stop Microsoft including the Java VM, it would kill Java stone dead within a year. Sun is cheesed off with Microsoft but not that cheesed off. So what exactly is this legal mudslinging actually all about?

At the bottom of all this is the future of the Windows operating system. On the one hand Sun plans Java as a trojan horse to get its other products onto the desktop. After all, if, as Sun believes, Solaris is truly a better operating system than Windows, except for the minor detail that it doesn't run the Windows business applications by allowing the same apps to run on all machines via Java, suddenly Sun's biggest obstacle disappears like a magician's assistant. Cheap JavaStations from Sun and others would replace the Wintel standard and Scott McNeally, Sun's boss, would be carried shoulder high into the 21st Century by a grateful user community freed from the Redmond yoke.

Of course, Sun doesn't quite put it like that. Sun would have us believe they are the good guys and are stopping Big Bad Microsoft from kidnapping Java and having its wicked way with her in its Redmond hideout. They proclaim themselves the upholders of the "write once, run anywhere" foundation stone of the Java standard. This is precisely why Bill Gates has ordered no retreat from the line in the face of Sun's onslaught over what is essentially a trivial matter. But what is Microsoft's line anyway?

In the early days Microsoft made no bones about the fact that that its attitude to Java was "runs anywhere - but runs best on Windows". Actually, that's not true. In the early days Microsoft's philosophy was to ignore Java altogether in the hope that it would go away. Instead, it came up with the alternative ActiveX. For a while Microsoft used its market position to get a head of steam behind ActiveX but the momentum soon petered out. Partly in the face of a number of security problems that popped up but mostly because the customer kind of liked the idea of a PC standard that wasn't controlled by Microsoft. Here we are two years later and you tell me, when was the last time anyone - even Microsoft managers - bent your ear about ActiveX as an emerging standard?

So Microsoft feels sore that it lost that one and quietly threw its weight behind Java without actively promoting it. Instead, to the surprise of everyone, it came up with quite the fastest Java VM around in Internet Explorer 4.0. The Navigator equivalent was embarrassingly slow in comparison and was one of the main reasons Netscape 'opened' its browser to allow any VM to be used. Once again a company contrives to admit defeat without actually admitting it. Such is the way of the software industry.

So having captured the high ground, Microsoft did what Microsoft always said it was going to do -"embrace and extend". It proposed to extend Java to work best on Windows. Well, stone me! You could have knocked me down with a feather when I heard about that one. The boys at Sun are clearly less worldly than your humble correspondent as they declared themselves shocked at this disgusting turn of events. Mind you, McNeally and his executives were not so unworldy that they didn't write compliance into the contract and reached for their lawyers when they thought Microsoft overstepped the line.

So here we are. I don't think it matters one iota whether Microsoft or Sun wins this particular argument. It's a distraction and the only ones who care are the lawyers and macho posturers in the respective boardrooms. But please guys, don't try and kid us this argument is over anything other than corporate advantage.

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