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Java still Sun's way to minimize Microsoft

The server giant will trumpet the latest improvements to its ambitious software project at its JavaOne conference in San Francisco.

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  Sun: Open source leads to innovation
Ed Zander, president, Sun
In the years since Sun Microsystems introduced Java, the software has sprawled across every corner of the computing landscape. But through all the changes, one thing has remained the same: Java is Sun's tool to keep Microsoft at bay.

This week, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun will trumpet the latest improvements to its ambitious software project at its JavaOne conference in San Francisco. And Sun will update its strategy to undermine Microsoft with the latest technologies to make their way into the Java universe.

In keynote addresses Monday, Sun President Ed Zander will exhort programmers to keep Microsoft from gaining too much control over how the Internet weaves itself into the fabric of business transactions--a growing movement called "Web services" embraced by most major computing companies.

Business use of the Internet now parallels in some ways the early development of the Web, and Sun will issue "a call to action to ensure (Web services) be done in an open architecture," said George Paolini, Sun's outgoing vice president of technology evangelism and marketing and a key Java executive since the software's inception.

The concept of Web services essentially means taking all the jobs computers do today and moving them so those tasks are performed cooperatively over the Internet using a data-description language called Extensible Markup Language (XML). Microsoft has been an aggressive advocate of Web services, but Sun also has entered the fray.

Also Monday, Java General Manager Richard Green will describe how, over the next 12 to 18 months, Sun will make Web services a native part of Java 2 Enterprise Edition, the server version of Java, Paolini said. Green also will discuss several new J2EE licensees.

Sun's chief rival is pushing its Microsoft.Net initiative for Web services. The software giant argues that Sun's Java loyalty has made it a late and reluctant participant in the Web services movement and that Web services are diminishing Java's importance.

"They want to wrap themselves in the flag of XML Web services while at the same time setting fire to it," said John Montgomery, lead product manager for the Microsoft.Net framework. "The problem is, that leads to self-immolation."

But others see Sun as having caught up after a flat-footed start.

In early February, about 40 percent of companies surveyed by Giga Information Group said Microsoft was the primary company selling Web services products, with IBM in second place and Sun far behind, Giga analyst Mike Gilpin said. But now, Sun and Microsoft are about equal, each the choice of about 40 percent of those surveyed.

"Java is as much of a participant in the wave as Microsoft," Gilpin said. "Three times as many folks are viewing J2EE as their strategic architecture for applications in the future as had that view of .Net"--about 63 percent of 200 companies in a Giga survey, compared with 23 percent for Microsoft, he said.

Java's success
Java, software that lets programs run on a multitude of computers without having to be tweaked for each one, by most accounts has been a success for Sun. It has elevated a company that formerly sold just servers and an operating system into a company whose software runs on all major servers.

Sun failed in its attempt to use Java to consign Microsoft Windows to irrelevance, but it succeeded in getting thousands of programmers to write software that worked on other computers as well. And Java thrust Sun into the center of industry politics, giving Sun leverage in dealing with IBM and winning it a toehold in new markets such as cell phones.

But while Java has given Sun an entrenched position in many types of servers, the company hasn't succeeded in achieving its full vision of making Java the basis for Internet business. Instead, analysts say, Java is just one of a host of software technologies out of which companies have begun assembling Web services.

IBM is a key Java partner. Big Blue's support, along with Microsoft's early inclusion of Java in its Internet Explorer Web browser, helped propel the software from a curiosity to a useful tool. Java, by running on multiple types of computers, vastly simplifies IBM's task of writing software for all its different server lines.

But IBM has reservations about how much control Sun has over Java. "We continue to think it needs to be opened up," said Scott Hebner, director of marketing for IBM's WebSphere e-commerce software, of which Java is an integral component.

IBM believes Java will be an important part of the Web services world. In particular, the company is promoting a future version of Java for servers--J2EE version 1.3. IBM is itching to see some improvements over J2EE 1.2, such as the ability to send messages over the Internet that don't demand an instant response, and connecting software that will let J2EE programs communicate with standard accounting and inventory software.

IBM, with years of experience in this complicated world of interdependent servers, is happy with this Web services direction for Java. "We think it's been shifting to where IBM's strengths have always been," Hebner said.

Gilpin, like Microsoft, believes Sun would have preferred to have J2EE handling the jobs that now are being given to Web services. But the J2EE interfaces operate at a much more nitty-gritty programming level than the more general Web services communications standards, he said.

An incomplete victory
Java's clearest success has been on the server. Other domains have brought more disappointing results.

"We haven't had the success we thought we might have had on the desktop," Paolini said. Though older versions of Java are installed on most new desktop computers through Internet Explorer, most people still don't use the richer Java 2 version, and Sun hasn't succeeded in getting desktop software to be written for Java rather than for an operating system such as Windows or Mac OS.

The gadget arena is just beginning to catch on. Cell phones, handheld computers, set-top boxes, car navigation systems and other devices use a multitude of CPU types and operating systems, so Java's universality holds great appeal. But money and computing-power constraints have hobbled its adoption, since manufacturers can't afford to put a full-featured computing environment in each device.

Sun has responded by creating different "profiles" for different categories of devices and by handing some Java planning over to companies such as Nokia and Motorola that are more familiar with the markets.

The computing industry is on the verge of a new definition of the client computer "that is going to eclipse in volume what is the current king of the hill, the desktop computer," Paolini said. Sun says 3 million Java-enabled cell phones are in use today, 20 million will be in use by the end of the year, and 60 million to 80 million will be in use by the end of 2002.

Gilpin sees more power going to Microsoft, though, with its Pocket PC software finally giving it a strong foundation to seize a presence in the market for sub-PC gadgets.

But Sun's future isn't as rosy as in the last few years, when the Internet's growth meant huge revenue gains for the server giant. Now that Sun's planning is dominated by adjusting to diminished income hopes, it's possible Sun will be forced to scale back its Java plans.

Paolini declined to say whether parts of the Java organization would be lopped off. In the "not-too-distant future," Sun will likely focus less on inventing new Java technology and instead on solidifying the software's market position, Paolini said.

Despite these hurdles, Java has helped Sun, Giga's Gilpin said. "Java has been good for Sun, but not as much as they might have hoped," he said. "If the desired outcome was a 10, I think they probably got a six or a seven."