Sun-Microsoft Java spat: Developers the biggest losers

Analysis: Microsoft may have forked over $20m to settle this dispute, but the millions of Java programmers could feel the biggest pinch

Just because Microsoft ended up paying Sun Microsystems $20m (£13m) to settle their 4-year-old suit over the Java programming language doesn't mean Microsoft was the real loser in the spat.

In fact, a number of the estimated 2.5 million Java programmers could be the ones most adversely affected by the dispute and the terms of the settlement.

In the time since Sun originally sued Microsoft in October 1997 for alleged failure to comply with the terms of Sun's Java licensing contract, the Java landscape has changed dramatically. When Microsoft licensed Java in 1996 and subsequently developed its Visual J++ programming language and a Java Windows Virtual Machine, Java's success was not assured. In fact, Microsoft executives, in email messages made public during the course of Microsoft's various trials, indicated that Microsoft believed Java was a real threat to Microsoft's Windows empire.

Times have changed markedly in the Java landscape. Today, Java is both a programming language and a development technology comprising a number of programming interfaces and related plumbing.

The latest iteration of Java, J2EE, or Java 2 Enterprise Edition, is a server implementation expected to be one of the key infrastructure elements upon which Sun's Web services initiative will depend. Sun is set to detail its so-called Smart Services strategy at an event in San Francisco on 5 February.

Microsoft representatives said the company has no intention of attempting to license J2EE, despite the fact that 200 other companies already have done so. The company plans to ship Version 6 of its Visual J++ development tool, a version that Microsoft has not updated since 1998, as part of its Visual Studio.Net release. Unlike the other programming languages that are part of Visual Studio.Net, Visual J++ won't be updated to take advantage of the Microsoft.Net framework, Microsoft representatives have said.

Microsoft is steering developers who are enamoured of Java but interested in developing applications that are .Net compliant, as well as services, toward Microsoft's new programming language, called C# (pronounced "C-sharp"). C# is part of the Visual Studio.Net family.

For those who insist on developing in Java, Microsoft is pointing them toward Rational Software, which Microsoft executives have said will make Java .Net-friendly. Microsoft product manager Tony Goodhew said other third parties have expressed interest in developing a .Net version of Java, but he declined to name names.

Microsoft executives said the company also has no plans to include Java Virtual Machine in the next version of its Internet Explorer browser, IE 6.0, which is scheduled to be incorporated into Whistler, the successor to Windows 2000. Instead, IE users who want to access Java-enabled Web sites will need to download Java from Sun or another Java licensee.

Rick Ross, president of the Java Lobby Web site, echoed the sentiments of many developers in a note posted on the site. "Both Sun and Microsoft have won, and the losers are consumers and developers," he wrote. "We still have anaemic and unreliable Java GUI (graphical user interface) implementations blocking us from the full benefits of the 'write once, run anywhere' vision.

"The Microsoft anti-Java program was vicious and detestable, but I would suggest that Sun should be watched for Microsoft-like tendencies," he continued. "Much like ex-President Clinton, Sun has maintained an approval rating among developers that seems strangely too high when you look clearly at their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures."

Java Lobby poster Jason Michel said: "Java2 on the client is a bust; by 2002, .Net and C# will be the de facto client technology for distributed applications... Basically, Sun succeeded in fighting off language pollution, but the cost is going to be architectural pollution."

Other industry watchers voiced similar concerns.

"Sun was afraid Microsoft would do a better job implementing Java on Windows than they could in implementing it on Solaris," said Meta Group analyst Will Zachmann. "So Sun's message became, 'If you want to do Java, do it on Unix.' It resulted in a scorched-earth scenario. Java ended up losing more than Windows. But no one really won."

Zachmann said Sun had another chance to gain widespread acceptance for Java with J2EE. He noted that a number of large customers have made serious financial commitments to the J2EE technology. But implementing Enterprise Java Bean components and other elements of J2EE remains quite complex, Zachmann cautioned.

Not all developers blamed Sun, however. Executives at database software giant Oracle said developers were the real losers in the Sun vs. Microsoft Java battle.

"If Microsoft had kept going with Java, they really would have cleaned up," said Jeremy Burton, Oracle senior vice president of product and services marketing. "Now, Java's become a casualty of the Windows vs. Internet war."

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