Forget about the browser wars.
As Microsoft retools its technology lineup around the COM initiative, it's clear that the next battleground in the component wars will be on the server, where the company will square off against a host of Java backers.
Server-side development is becoming critical for new multitier e-commerce and business applications that combine intranet and extranet systems with commercial Internet access and links to mainframe and legacy databases. Both Microsoft and Java proponents, who back a COM competitor called CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture), are aiming to control the lingua franca used across those distributed systems.
For Microsoft, that means COM, and to Java backers, it's JavaBeans.
"This is not about object
technology; it's about the platform they offer for distributed computing," said Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Without a ground cover of distributed computing resources, you can't build component applications."
Microsoft maintains that COM, or Component Object Model, is best suited for the job--and as more than 90 percent of Fortune 1,000 companies already use Microsoft's tools, it's also the easiest way to start development. Competitors claim the software giant is still pushing a Windows-only strategy, where all roads lead to Windows NT, despite any claims to support Unix or other operating systems.
"Microsoft will pay lip service to interoperability, but its clear goal is to get people to move to NT," said Dwight Davis, an analyst with Summit Strategies.
The software giant is lining up all of its current and future technology behind COM as a way to make building and linking distributed applications easier, according to Tod Neilsen, general manager of platform marketing and developer relations at Microsoft. "The reason Microsoft is focusing on the server is that the developer community is saying, 'We have to build distributed applications, that's what we want,'" he said.
Microsoft's efforts include Windows NT 5.0, transaction management technology, clustering initiatives, application and database servers, and linking COM to non-Microsoft systems like mainframes and Unix servers. The company's development tools are also being tuned for easier COM development.
Java proponents, including Netscape Communications, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems, are pushing JavaBeans and CORBA for distributed development. They claim Java is the best choice, since developers can write JavaBeans components once and run them unchanged at any level of a multitiered application.
The Java camp is sketching out new technology to take advantage of the server-based Enterprise JavaBeans architecture, which defines a base server layer and a set of application components for transaction processing, mail, directory services, Web access, and other services.
"The server side is critical to Enterprise and Personal Java and to thin clients," said Jim Mitchell, vice president of technology and architecture at Sun's JavaSoft division.
JavaSoft plans to ship the Webtop Application Server, a Java server for doling out Java code to thin clients, by summertime. The server runs on both Unix and Windows NT, which will give big companies an optional component strategy to Microsoft's COM.
The Sun unit also plans to ship by summer a tool called JavaBlend, added Mitchell, to turn ordinary database records into Java components. Also, at next month's JavaOne conference, JavaSoft is expected to debut new technical support and licensing programs intended to sway corporate buyers.
Netscape, in the wake of its decision to give away its Communicator client software, is making a renewed commitment to raking in revenue from its server software. The company continues to integrate application server software, acquired through its purchase of Kiva Software, into its server lineup.
Martin Cagan, vice president of platform and tools at Netscape, said the company underestimated the popularity of Java for server applications. "We have seen an incredible, rapid growth of server-side Java. I thought it would all be on the client, but I was wrong."
Cagan added the Internet software company is working to more tightly integrate its application and Web server software. "What's been missing is middleware for the Internet. We've had that in corporate environments for some time now."
Redmond executives said the focus of the company's marketing efforts for the next year will be pushing its COM technologies for servers. In addition, COM+, the next iteration of the component architecture, will include new services to make building components easier, they added.
Those services include automatic garbage collection (one of Java's big selling points), transaction services integrated into components, and better security, according to Microsoft product manager Garth Fort.
The company also said just weeks ago that it will take a more active role in providing versions of its COM component technology for Unix and other operating systems--a signal analysts say means the company is taking more seriously its battle against CORBA backers and Java proponents.
Microsoft licensed COM technologies to Silicon Graphics and CORBA object request broker specialist Iona. Silicon Graphics plans to implement COM on Unix, while Iona intends to build a COM-to-CORBA bridge to allow systems built to conform to the differing architectures to communicate.
Moreover, Microsoft also committed an unspecified number of internal developers to building COM technologies for Unix, and in the future, for other operating systems, according to company product manager Joe Maloney.
Despite its current weakness in supporting non-Microsoft operating systems, most observers still give Microsoft the edge in the server wars. "As long as independent software vendors feel that COM is an important part of the industry, it will be hard for Java to get a foothold with JavaBeans," said Davis.
Dropping ActiveX from Microsoft's lexicon for distributed technologies makes the marketing pitch more compelling, noted Dave Kelly, vice president of research services at the Hurwitz Group. "Nobody is pledging cross-platform support for ActiveX. But they are for COM."
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