Crunch Time for Sun, Microsoft

Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. were involved in 11th-hour negotiations late last week to resolve disputes over Microsoft's Java licensing agreement and its Internet Explorer 4.0 browser.

The talks between high-level officials, which were ongoing at press time, will prove pivotal this week in the relationship between Microsoft and Sun and will go a long way to determine the ultimate fate of Java.

With resolution to the disputes still up in the air, Sun last week continued to threaten its Redmond, Wash., rival.

"If we have [a commitment to support all of Java Development Kit 1.1], you will see both sides publicly support everything on Tuesday," Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft division, in Cupertino, Calif., said last Thursday. "If not, you'll see us take action against them."

If an agreement is not reached in which both sides can claim victory, Sun has a number of options. The company could forbid Microsoft from using the name Java or Virtual Machine (both trademarked by Sun) in any of its products and literature, it could boot the company out of the programs that provide licensees with source code and access to technologies, or it could take other actions regarding trademark violations.

"We have considered those and other options," said Baratz. "If they choose to pick a school-yard fight with us and remain proprietary and destroy the value proposition of Java, then we need to take action. We will never let anyone erode the value proposition of Java."

At issue is the lack of support in IE 4.0, due to ship this Tuesday, for a low-level API in the JDK called JNI (Java Native Interface), which provides developers access to platform-specific functions from within a Java application.

Microsoft has long refused to support JNI, saying its own Raw Native Interface provides better capabilities for Java applications within the Win32 systems.

A second contentious issue involving Remote Method Invocation, a competing technology to Microsoft's Distributed Component Object Model, has been resolved, according to Baratz.

Microsoft officials maintain that IE 4.0 will be the most compliant JDK 1.1 browser available, pointing out that Netscape Communications Corp.'s Communicator still fails to meet certain JDK requirements as well.

"Are there two standards, one for Microsoft and one for the rest of the industry?" Todd Nielsen, general manager for Microsoft's developer relations and platform marketing, asked at the company's Professional Developers Conference here last week.

Baratz said there is a clear distinction between how Netscape and Microsoft have worked with Sun, which requires only that a vendor provide a commitment to support all JDK technologies within an agreed-upon schedule.

In August, Netscape shipped a beta add-on for Communicator that would give it full support for JDK 1.1. The final version will ship this year, officials said.

Regardless of the outcome of its battle with Microsoft, Sun has put into place a number of Win32 and channel strategies to ensure that Java will be available on Windows.

The impact of this long-running feud is taking a toll on corporate adopters, whose Java projects could be stymied if Sun and Microsoft can't find common ground.

"The industry wants standards. It does not want proprietary solutions. That is why the idea of [Java] is being adopted," said Ken Harris, vice president and Certified Internet Professional at PepsiCo, in Somers, N.Y., which runs a large number of Windows computers and has begun working with Java.