Sun vs. Microsoft -- until when?

Summary:Sun vs. Microsoft, Microsoft vs. Sun: Let's call the whole thing off.

Listening to Scott McNealy and his team go through the paces during Sun Microsystems' big Monday presentation in San Francisco, I closed my eyes and tried hard to believe that this wasn't going to be just another slick sales pitch.

In between taking the usual pot shots at Microsoft for its supposed addiction to shoving hairball technology down the public's collective gullet, Sun rolled out all the right lines--and sounded earnest, if not believable.

A lot is on the line. Although Sun has been talking about how the network is the computer, the fact is it's late to the Web-services game behind Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, and (gasp!) even Microsoft.

And that's got to grate on McNealy and Co., which is desperately trying to shake the image that Sun remains a hardware supplier. Beaucoup shekels are at stake, and the company needs in the worst way to convince the world it has a comprehensive development framework.

So it was that one exec followed another onstage, armed with a numbing array of slides to reinforce the image that Sun was all about offering comprehensive Web services for programmers eager to write Web-enabled applications. But all the market-speak and PR bloviation aside, I would have really been swayed if Sun had done something really radical to bury its silly rivalry with Microsoft.

In this Mad Magazine takeoff of scenes we'd like to see, I would envision McNealy taking the stage to announce a long-term plan to embrace all the leading protocols -- perhaps even encompass rival technologies -- all in a bid to get over the hump and make this junk truly interoperable.

Then management would have a really interesting story to sell. But it would also mean burying the past.

The fact is that Sun and Microsoft continue to play their little games. Microsoft is wooing developers away from Java. Sun will repay the favor by converting code developed using Microsoft programming tools to Java.

So much wasted effort goes into jockeying with rivals, particularly Microsoft, in a tiresome war of words over direction. Pardon my ennui, but do users really care which company first came up with the vision of Web-based computing?

And McNealy didn't disappoint, using the opportunity to take several potshots at Microsoft and its "hairball" technology, at one point referring to .Net as the hairball on the Net.

So when Sun offers up the now-familiar professions of unwavering commitment to open industry standards, my BS detector points off the charts. (The same goes for the Microsmurfs up in Redmond, but let's save that diatribe for a future column.)

I'm not so naive to believe that McNealy or any other CEO would have the brass to stand up on stage and level with the audience about what's really going on--though that would be refreshing. Sun remains a hardware vendor where Job Number 1 is to sell gobs of hardware. The company talks about open standards but Java essentially remains Sun's own captive software technology.

In this business, the only real open industry standard in the computer industry is Linux, which thankfully remains beyond the clutches of the moguls. Everything else is hokum designed to lock developers (and by extension, customers) into proprietary corners of the computing constellation.

That's the way business gets done.

Topics: Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, Software

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