Sun vs. Microsoft: The Duel

Archrivals Microsoft and Sun Microsystems marked a new leg of their race to create the next generation of Web applications through a week of self-aggrandizing pronouncements.
Written by Charles Babcock, Contributor

Archrivals Microsoft and Sun Microsystems marked a new leg of their race to create the next generation of Web applications through a week of self-aggrandizing pronouncements. As Sun beat the drum for its Web services offerings, Microsoft launched Windows XP and elements of .Net, its own strategic Web services platform.

Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman and chief software architect, unveiled early versions of the company's Visual Studio .Net development tools and .Net Framework skeleton applications last week to 6,000 developers at a conference in Los Angeles. Gates then jetted to New York for the Oct. 25 launch of Windows XP, an operating system that he touted as establishing a new era of reliable and simple computing. The Visual Studio .Net tools are designed to help developers build Web services, and Windows XP will provide a direct avenue to Microsoft-hosted Web services such as the Passport user ID and .Net My Services, a set of XML services for personal information.

At his own Silicon Valley event, Sun CEO Scott McNealy chastised Microsoft for not letting users do for themselves what Sun allows them to do with its Forte for Java tool set, iPlanet server software and upcoming Liberty Alliance Project user ID system.

The differences between the two companies' strategies were summed up by Rob Enderle, an analyst at Giga Information Group: "Microsoft is the larger player, and it's in more of a position to say, 'You have to play with us. We don't have to play with you.' " Sun, on the other hand, despite its growing software offerings, "is an engine company competing in a marketplace that wants to buy automobiles . . . [but] it's got a hell of a good engine."

Sun executives disputed that assertion, saying that Sun is building an "end-to-end" set of software offerings that includes the iPlanet Web Server, Directory Server, Integration Server and Application Ser-ver for a Web services infrastructure.

Web of the Future

Microsoft illustrated the potential of future Web services by emphasizing Windows XP's integrated multimedia features.

McNealy said Sun is selling Web services building blocks — not competing with its technology customers for end users, as he asserted Microsoft is doing. Large consumer-oriented companies can send all of their customer information to Microsoft Passport servers, or they can climb aboard the Sun-sponsored Liberty Alliance Project, with its "federated" user ID systems scattered among participants, he said.

Sun representatives emphasized that Sun products adhere to Java; XML; and Universal Description, Discovery and Integration standards, and will work with other software companies' products. A Sun customer can use a Java application server from any vendor it chooses, noted Richard Green, Sun's general manager of Java software.

Microsoft has decided to not include a Java Virtual Machine in Windows XP, but Gates spent time assuring developers that Microsoft will adhere to open Internet standards such as XML.

"All the work that we . . . are doing to push these standards forward simply advances the industry," Gates said in Los Angeles.

At the lavishly produced Windows XP launch event in New York — which featured appearances by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Regis Philbin and Sting — Microsoft made a point of demonstrating a Windows XP PC running applications from AOL and RealNetworks. "XP is for all software and hardware developers," said Jim Allchin, Microsoft's group vice president in charge of Windows.

In the end, analysts said, Microsoft proposes moving the creation and use of Web services closer to the desktop, with its ease-of-use features in Windows XP and its .Net technologies. In contrast, Sun continues to appeal to the data center and large Web site developers, with scalable Unix-oriented technologies such as its Forte for Java tools and its iPlanet servers.

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