Tech Industry

Sun adjusting terms of Java server software licensing

As a result, the company increases the number of licensees from seven to 12, and at least two more are close to signing deals.

Sun Microsystems is learning that it's sometimes better to bend than break.

The Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer company is being more flexible with the terms of its Java licensing agreements, allowing companies to adopt a new version of the software in smaller bites instead of one large mouthful. The goal is to quell some of the griping that has emerged in the Java world.

Sun released a version of Java for server computers in December, but the fanfare was drowned out by disgruntlement and spotty support from several business partners. In the last week, however, Sun has increased the number of licensees from seven to 12, and at least two more are close to signing deals, product manager Bill Roth said.

"December was a tough month for a lot of us," Roth said. But the new licensees show that "we've learned what we needed to learn to smooth out the bumps."

At least one of Sun's customers agreed. "It's a smart move on their part to begin to allow folks to pursue the standard without imposing too rigid a structure," said Leon DeMaille, senior vice president of marketing at InterWorld, one of the new licensees. InterWorld, whose e-commerce software powers the Web sites of Disney, Nike, ESPN and others, will move gradually toward Sun's server version of Java, with full compliance planned for the fourth quarter of 2001.

At the heart of the matter is Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), a collection of nine Java software technologies to handle server tasks such as running modules of e-commerce software, talking to databases, or automatically constructing Web pages. Java, invented by Sun, is software intended to shield programmers from the underlying differences among computer hardware and operating systems.

Java is generally popular in the computing industry, but Sun has encountered trouble in trying to balance its control over the software with the desire to spread it as widely as possible. And convincing competitors such as Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard or BEA Systems to adopt the operating environment into its products hasn't always been easy.

Sun is gradually releasing control over Java, but not as fast as IBM and some others want. Sun has twice pulled the plug on efforts to submit Java to a standards body, a move that would give others more control over Java. The company now is focusing on reforming the Java Community Process, in essence a standardization process whose rules are set by Sun.

"We're doing our best to be faithful stewards, but there are folks who would love to wrest control of Java away from us," Roth said. Specifically, Roth accused IBM of not supporting J2EE as a strategy to drive a wedge between Sun and its Java partners.

An IBM spokesman declined to comment on private discussions with business partners but said the company hasn?t changed its decision not to participate in a Sun program for using the J2EE brand. "We support the technology, which we helped create, but we're not supporting the branding program," the spokesman said.

With regard to J2EE, Sun is trying to show it's willing to work, Roth said. "We've always been flexible. We're just doing a better job at making people understand how flexible we've been all along," he said. That includes willingness to reconsider the 3 percent of J2EE software revenue Sun requests of licensees, he said.

"Some folks presented us with some pretty interesting market needs" where companies only wanted to use parts of the new version, he added. Interworld thought long and hard before deciding to commit to J2EE compliance, DeMaille said, but once the company did, hammering out the contract was swift.

Besides InterWorld, Sun has signed on Sybase, Hitachi, Compaq and Art Technology Group as J2EE partners. One key holdout is BEA Systems, a maker of application server software that lies at the heart of J2EE and many e-commerce Web sites, but that too could soon change.

"I think things are going to be good," Roth said with regard to BEA. BEA representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

Sybase, like IBM a long-term Java partner, wasn't rushing to sign onto the J2EE program, said Rob Veitch, director of business development for Sybase. "We weren't exactly ready in December" to announce J2EE support, but there wasn't much doubt that the company would sign on. Sybase will use J2EE in its application server and elsewhere.

One of the hurdles for meeting Sun's J2EE requirements is a raft of 4,000 to 6,000 compliance tests that ensure a company's software works properly. "We've implemented all the component parts, but the certification is necessarily quite exhaustive," Veitch said. "It's not exactly a walk in the park."

Testing is another area where Sun is willing to yield in some cases, Roth said. "We're willing to work with partners. We take tests out that people have a legitimate disagreement with," he said.