Sun says Microsoft pact not a blow to standards

Despite a new window into Microsoft's proprietary technology, Sun Microsystems won't stop its call for open standards, executives and analysts say.

Despite a new window into Microsoft's proprietary technology, Sun Microsystems won't stop its call for open standards, executives and analysts say.

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What's new:
Sun's recent legal settlement with Microsoft has given the server company a window into the software giant's proprietary technology, allowing Sun to make its programs more compatible with Microsoft's. But Sun says it will continue its call for open standards.

Bottom line:
Some think the settlement could tow Microsoft toward standards. Others, however, say Sun will no longer take the initiative against the giant in standards battles, a development that could especially hurt the open-source movement.

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Sun has been one of the most vocal advocates of open standards, arguing that customers should be able to choose from technology from multiple suppliers and shouldn't have to fear getting locked in to any one company's technology. The rhetoric has been designed to undermine Microsoft, whose software has long been derided by Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy as a "welded-shut hair ball."

Friday's legal settlement, though, gives Sun a way to use the Microsoft technology necessary to let Sun's server and desktop software effectively interoperate with Microsoft's. The agreement basically provides a framework, whereby Sun can use royalty payments to pick its way into the Microsoft hair ball. The agreement rests squarely in the realm of intellectual-property exchange, not on open standards.

But McNealy insists Sun won't back down from its calls for openness. "It doesn't stop me from everything we do in making sure that those interfaces are open, multivendor and all the rest. It's just that when I need to interoperate with a Microsoft environment, I have a mechanism to try to make that happen," McNealy said in a Friday interview.

Indeed, some believe not only that Sun won't abandon its openness drive but also that the new pact could tow Microsoft toward standards.


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"You'll probably see more resolution of standards issues rather than these (different) camps setting up all the time," said Current Analysis analyst Shawn Willett, speaking of new Internet plumbing called Web services, for which Sun pushes Java and Microsoft pushes .Net.

Choke points and standards
Sun's push for open standards was a centerpiece of its 2002 antitrust suit against Microsoft, which sought more than $1 billion in damages. Sun asserted that "Microsoft-controlled choke points to Internet access" result from the combination of Windows and .Net.

Those allegations are now history. Under Friday's deal, Microsoft this quarter will pay Sun $700 million to resolve antitrust issues and $900 million to resolve patent issues. Microsoft will pay Sun $350 million to use Sun technology, with Sun paying an unspecified amount later, when it uses Microsoft technology.

But Sun recognizes that from a customer point of view, any widely used technology foundation, such as Windows, is in effect a standard, even though it wasn't set by a neutral committee.

"Open standards are the ideal. It would be wonderful if everybody would adopt them and adhere to them. But there are also other standards--called de facto standards--that often compete with open standards," said Jonathan Schwartz, McNealy's new chief operating officer and Sun's former software chief.

Gartner analyst Daryl Plummer believes that the Microsoft agreement "is not going to stop Sun from pushing open standards." It's more likely, he says, that Sun will use better Microsoft interoperability to reinforce its message of openness.

From identity to digital rights
Sun and Microsoft now have a way to work together to prevent schisms such as the fight over digital identity and authentication standards with Passport from Microsoft or Liberty, from Sun and several partners. Indeed, Schwartz said teams from the two companies have already begun cooperation on directory software that stores information for identity software.

Authentication and identity leads naturally to the more controversial realm of digital rights management, or DRM--encryption and authentication software that controls computer permission to take actions such as playing digital music or running specific programs.

DRM is central to privacy, piracy, security and other issues, and Schwartz said he hopes that Sun and Microsoft can now can work together in the area. That cooperation is significant, in light of Sun's work in recent years to create a Liberty sequel for DRM.

"I would like to believe we will have cooperation on a single standard" for DRM, Schwartz said. "I think we have interacted with a set of ethical, high-integrity, highly engaged, passionate Microsoft employees. There's finally...a foundation set that allows us to look across the table as partners, not litigants."

One group that benefits from open standards is open-source programmers, who can use them to more


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easily produce software that can substitute for proprietary programs. Open standards can diminish technical troubles and the fear of running afoul of intellectual-property assets.

Linux founder Linus Torvalds has opened the door to DRM in the heart of the open-source operating system. Whether DRM is a freely available standard or a closed corporate partnership greatly affects whether Linux will be able to dovetail with others' DRM efforts.

A step backward?
Sun in the past has been something of an ally to open source, for example helping to make the case against Microsoft that the World Wide Web Consortium should make its standards available royalty-free, said Bruce Perens, a prominent open-source advocate. But the Sun-Microsoft deal is a bad portent, when it comes to Sun's previous strength in fighting against Microsoft for the open-standards cause, he said.

"I believe Sun will not take the initiative against Microsoft in standards organizations from here on out," Perens said. "I think that's going to make it more difficult for open source in general and worse for the customer, because the customer will have less choice."

Sun deserves credit for keeping standards open but has kept too much control when it comes to Java, Perens said.

IBM, a major Java partner that helped Sun with many of the technology's key features, has urged Sun to make Java open-source software.

Sun not backing off the openness attack
Sun's Schwartz asserts that the company's Java Community Process--by which interested companies can influence the direction of Java--"embodies...the spirit of open standards" and counterattacks that the lack of standards in open-source software means that Linux seller Red Hat "violates" that spirit.

And Sun hasn't stopped using openness as a competitive jab against Microsoft in the example of directory software, where Sun pushes the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol standard in favor of Microsoft's Active Directory.

"I still think Microsoft has to grapple with open standards as well," Schwartz said. "Microsoft could wish LDAP would disappear, but it's still the most broadly deployed directory standard on the planet."

And Microsoft likely will provide fodder for Sun's openness battle. Despite the interoperability framework, Microsoft isn't likely to help Sun edge in on turf such as Microsoft Office file formats, Illuminata analyst Jonathan Eunice said.

"No matter how happy the cooperative terms are, I don't think Microsoft is going to try to make it easy for Sun to steal their market share," Eunice said. "Microsoft has done wonderful work with Web services and XML, but Microsoft has a fundamental business imperative, which is that 'Everything you do, you have to come through us.'"

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