Microsoft's Java decision a mixed bag

Sun says it is "disappointed" by the company's decision to not include Java software in its Windows XP and Internet Explorer products.

Sun Microsystems said it is "disappointed" by Microsoft's decision to not include Java software in its Windows XP and Internet Explorer products, although analysts said the move could help Sun in the long run.

On the surface, removing Java from Windows XP looks like a blow to Sun, cutting off an important distribution channel for Java. But Microsoft's practice of shipping outdated copies of the software has slowed the distribution of more recent and faster versions of Java, analysts said, and has hurt the software's reputation.

Java allows programs to run on many different computer systems--such as those running the Apple operating systems and the Windows OS--without having to be adjusted for each one. However, the PC must have a copy of the Java virtual machine (JVM) installed to run the program. Microsoft, a longtime foe of Sun, acknowledged this week that it will not pre-install the JVM with its upcoming OS upgrade, Windows XP, and its new browser, Internet Explorer 6.0.

While that would appear to be entirely bad news for Sun, it could also solve a major headache for the company: Microsoft currently includes outdated JVM copies included with Windows, Internet Explorer and other software that can cause problems for people using Java.

"Microsoft is doing Sun a big favor," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group. "If you were Sun, you could go to Dell, IBM or Compaq and ask them to put copies of the virtual machine on their systems. They could download future JVMs from Sun, cutting Microsoft completely out of the picture."

Indeed, Sun spokesman David Harrah said the company is "working with every conceivable way of distributing the JVM we can," including trying to persuade computer makers to pre-install the software. However, Microsoft's decision hurts Sun's efforts to spread the software. "We would like everybody to use Java. We continue to feel that it would be better to have Microsoft distribute it than not. We're upset. We're disappointed."

Microsoft in April pulled Java software from testing versions of Windows XP. While the new operating system will be able to run Java software, Microsoft decided shipping an outdated version of the JVM was not in the best interest of customers.

"We want people to have the best user experience possible using Windows XP," said Greg Sullivan, lead product manager for Windows. Shipping an outdated version of JVM "doesn't support that goal."

Sun countered, though, that the move hurts ordinary people who use Windows computers. "It's clearly a move intended to hurt...the millions who use the Java platform," Harrah said.

Because of a lawsuit that Sun filed in 1997--arguing Microsoft violated its contract for licensing Java--the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant was locked into using an older JVM, version 1.1.4. In a January court settlement that ended the dispute, Microsoft could continue to distribute the older JVM for seven years.

The settlement ensured that future Microsoft products would contain older copies of Java software. While Java developers benefited from this arrangement, some believe Microsoft hurt Sun by widely distributing the older JVM version.

"That version of Java is really stale," O'Kelly said. "If you're running Windows XP and you want to run anything more recent than a 1997 version of Java, you need something from this century."

The most recent JVM version available from Sun is 1.3.1. This version loads considerably faster than 1.1.4 and offers important improvements that make it possible to run Java programs requiring more elaborate design than just basic buttons and text.

But because most users get Java software either with the Web browser or operating systems--two segments where Microsoft is the market leader--"they get the older version and probably don't bother to upgrade," said Technology Business Research analyst Bob Sutherland.

While it does not ship with a JVM, Windows XP does support Java. The operating system will work with JVMs currently installed on users machines, with new versions of the Sun JVM that are downloaded, and with JVMs distributed with other programs, such as AOL Time Warner's Netscape 6.1.

Gartner analyst David Smith says Microsoft's announcement doesn't make it go away, but it does represent another step in undermining Java.

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But people who buy the full version of Windows XP in stores "will not have a pre-installed virtual machine," Sullivan said. "The first time you hit a Web site with Java applets, it will pop a dialog box to download the code. That's the worst the experience gets."

The Sun JVM download also is 5 megabytes in size, which could inconvenience some people, particularly those with dial-up connections.

Harrah predicted that 90 percent of computer users will balk when confronted with a dialog box informing them they'll need to download additional software in order to run some program.

One Java programmer, Kevin Riff of Ottawa, Canada, posting a note on the Java Lobby discussion board, said some people will download the Java software, "but I can also see how a 5 megabyte download could seem daunting to a neophyte. Especially if they don't have high-speed Internet access." The solution, he said, is to convince computer makers "to include the Java plug-in on all new computers configured with Windows XP."

Microsoft's Java pullback also affects Internet Explorer 6, which will be bundled with Windows XP. Installing Microsoft's licensed JVM--the older version--is an optional download.

"Count the number of people that download IE 6 and don't already have a Java VM and you can count them on one hand," Sullivan quipped. "This isn't going to impact anybody."

Guarding the launch date
Microsoft also views separating Java software from Windows XP as important to safeguarding Windows XP's Oct. 25 launch date.

"We're going to ship Windows XP, and we're going to ship it on Oct. 25," Sullivan said. "One of the things we want to make sure we do is not put it at risk. Sun has demonstrated it will use legal means to compete."

Sun derided the position. "I'm not even going to grace that with an answer. They had the legal right to distribute the JVM as a right of the settlement. I don't know how anything can be clearer than that," Harrah said. "This is their decision not to have it in there."

"Lets say we put in the Java VM and come Oct. 1; Sun decides there is something about our implementation based on the settlement that they disagree with and they try to enjoin us from shipping Windows XP," Sullivan said.

The legal squabbling between Sun and Microsoft has been fierce. Besides the Java lawsuit, Sun's complaint to the European Union started an investigation of Microsoft's server software business on the continent.

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