Technology: It's a two horse race

Sun CEO Scott McNealy has a lot to say about everything. But nothing sticks out more than the one thing he repeated over and over during our recent interview: "There are only two multi-million developer bases out there. That's it."

commentary Sun CEO Scott McNealy has a lot to say about everything: what 21st century IT should look like, Microsoft and the DOJ, national security, and the economy. But nothing sticks out in my mind more than the one thing he repeated over and over during our recent interview; "There are only two multi-million developer bases out there. That's it."

He's right. It has all come down Java vs. .NET. Plenty of other battles for supremacy are raging in our industry: Databases. Operating Systems. Corporate Portals. Chips. Mobile. Security. Outsourcing. Not one of them looms larger than Java vs. Windows.

In fact, all are simply caught in the draft of Java vs. .NET. While we struggle to make strategic technology decisions that are little more than calculated bets on the winner, Sun and Microsoft are in a desperate race for the same brass ring: transactional user IDs.

As McNealy put it at Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in October: "The big war is that he or she who dies with the most rich and/or smart people in their online directory wins. Every bank, every retailer, everybody is trying to get the most rich and/or smart people into their online directories before their competitors do. Microsoft has figured this out."

Mailing lists all over again
History is repeating itself. It's mailing lists all over again. Businesses have long understood that the key to winning is finding and contacting people who have their wallets out.

That idea gave birth to the special interest publication whose main business proposition to advertisers is its mailing list--a targeted demographic ready to spend money on something specific. Why else would they be reading the special interest publication? They must be looking for something to buy. Millions of businesses exist solely for the purpose of assembling and distributing these targeted lists.

Before the Internet came along, however, list impurity was a major issue. The older a list, the more likely it was that the list's members had put away their wallets, and the less valuable the list became. But the Internet is enabling businesses with real-time lists with a purity that's nearly 100 percent. These lists immediately answer the question of who has money to spend, who is about to spend it, when they'll spend it, and who is willing to spend it online. It's the 21st century version of a customer list, a.k.a. McNealy's online directory of transactional IDs.

Assembling these directories has put the war between Java and .NET ahead of all other battles, because in the future no transaction will be completed without the presence of one of these technologies in the customer's hands.

Who do you bet on?
While both technologies could co-exist for the foreseeable future, Sun and Microsoft appear hell bent on disintermediating the other. If either company succeeds, virtually everybody who bet on the wrong horse--businesses, IT managers, programmers, and vendors--would be sent back to the drawing board. This is a potentially devastating setback, because deciding on one technology forces you into making so many other decisions across your entire solution matrix.

For example, thousands of mobile phones and credit cards are already entering the market with Java preloaded. While Web services standards like XML and SOAP should make it possible for these Java clients to conduct a transaction with a server driven by either Java or .NET, the odds of the transaction completing successfully and securely are increased when the same technology is on both ends of the network.

Furthermore, popularity of one technology over the other could create a vicious circle. Merchants who see more potential customers using Java-enabled devices will develop for Java. If more merchants develop for Java, then more mobile phone makers will put Java into their phones. If one technology develops enough momentum over the other, the game could be over.

To keep that from happening, Sun and Microsoft are waging a war that includes smear campaigns, innuendo, personal attacks between the executives, litigation, entire technology and development platforms, and, most interestingly, a no-holds-barred effort to marry those platforms to the most transactional IDs.

The focus of this struggle has now turned to the part of Java and .NET that promises to allow customers to move seamlessly from one site to another without having to use separate user IDs and passwords. In Microsoft's world, this is called Passport. Sun's implementation is called Project Liberty.

Getting users to adopt one or the other is one way to complete the aforementioned marriage. To do this as quickly as possible, and to claim bragging rights for the most number of transactional IDs, Microsoft and Sun are taking two completely different approaches.

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