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US Report: Microsoft may follow own path on Java

In the wake of Tuesday's ruling forcing Microsoft Corp. to ship Sun Microsystem Inc.'s version of Java in Windows 98, Internet Explorer and its development tools, the big question now is what happens next.
Written by Michael Moeller, Contributor

The preliminary injunction, a major blow to Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT), states that Microsoft has 90 days to change any product that ships with Java technologies so that it will conform with and pass Sun's Java compatibility test suite. Currently, the Microsoft products affected include Internet Explorer 4.0, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 and the Java development tool Visual J++ 6.0.

Just how Microsoft will do that is anyone's guess, at this point.

Paul Maritz, group vice president and general manager of the applications and tools group at Microsoft, did not dismiss two far-reaching possibilities: Cancel all support for Java in its products, or replace the Java virtual machine it licensed from Sun with a clean room version created by Microsoft.

"That is a possibility, but I would not want to comment further on that at this point," Maritz said during a conference call Tuesday evening, when asked if Microsoft might create its own version of Java.

Microsoft has already taken steps that indicate it may not support Java going forward. In the beta of Internet Explorer 5.0, released earlier this month, Microsoft made the Java virtual machine an optional download for users. Maritz added that Microsoft has no contractual obligations to support Java, saying that these were fulfilled when it shipped IE 3.02.

However, Sun's General Counsel and Vice President Michael Morris said that Microsoft's commitment contractually to Java runs for five years. The contract was signed in the spring of 1996. Morris and Alan Baratz, Java software division president, seemed to indicate that Sun would take issue with Microsoft if it tried to use a clean room version instead of the version its has licensed from Sun.

If Microsoft opts to continue supporting Java it will need to support a key API that as been at the center of this dispute - Java Native Interface. JNI is a bridge that connects Java code that is written natively to a specific operating system with portable Java code the can run on any platform. The bridge is designed to let any application be able to tap the native code without locking the entire application into a specific environment. Microsoft has refused to support JNI to date, saying that it duplicates Microsoft's J/Direct, which is already in the operating system. Microsoft will not have to remove J/Direct, according to the order, only add support for JNI.

Maritz described the effort to support JNI in its products as "not trivial" but that it would not have any material impact on Microsoft.

Baratz extended an olive branch towards Microsoft, saying that he hopes the ruling and events will lead it back into the fold of the Java community. He said he would be willing to help Microsoft conform to the ruling. "I hope that they will take us up on the offer," said Baratz.

If Microsoft were to accept Baratz's offer, Sun said that it would resume sending Microsoft the latest versions of the Java technology. Sun is due to ship the Java Development Kit 1.2 early next month, but has withheld information on it from Microsoft, due to their legal fight. Sun officials said if Microsoft agrees to remain compliant and work with the rest of the Java community, Sun will be happy to send it JDK 1.2 information.

But Microsoft must do more than just change its Java VM. It will also need to modify its use of extensions it has made to the Java language. With the release of VJ++ 6.0 earlier this year, Microsoft include additions to the language called keywords and directives - both of which tied Java application to Windows exclusively and were the default setting within the tool.

As part of the ruling, Microsoft will now have to make the creation of cross-platform Java the default setting. It also must put a warning label within the code of the tool that is activated if a developer elects to change the setting to use the Microsoft-specific extensions. The warning label is designed to tell developers that if they use the extensions, a future ruling in the case could force them to change their code.

Tuesday's action stems from the filing of a breach of contract suit by Sun against Microsoft in October of last year. Sun amended that complaint in May when it asked the judge for the preliminary injunction be put in place until the trial could be heard. It is unclear when exactly the trial might begin.

Saying that it is disappointed with the ruling and dismayed at Sun's use of legal tactics, Microsoft is also exploring all of its options on the legal side as well. According to Tom Burt, the company's associate general counsel, Microsoft is exploring all its legal options, and may appeal the ruling. Burt maintained that "once all the facts are introduced in the case, we are confident that Microsoft will prevail at the trial."

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