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Sun joins Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play Forum

The company enters enemy territory, joining the group of companies working on Microsoft-backed gadget software that competes with Sun's Jini technology.

Sun Microsystems has entered enemy territory, joining the group of companies working on Microsoft-backed gadget software that competes with Sun's Jini technology.

Gartner analysts P.J. McNealy and Todd Hanson say home networking remains at such an early stage that there are no clear leaders in the race to establish standards.

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But Sun's decision to join the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) Forum doesn't mean the company is giving up on Jini, said Curtis Sasaki, director of product marketing for Sun's consumer technologies.

Jini and UPnP both govern how devices announce themselves on a network to exchange data. For example, a Jini digital camera could send pictures to a Jini printer without having to use a computer as a middleman.

"Just because we're joining doesn't mean we're endorsing UPnP or that we support UPnP," Sasaki said. "We're joining to get information, because you can't get information unless you're a member. It's important to know what's going on in the rest of the world."

Microsoft, however, was delighted with the move and described it as an indication of growing support for its technology. "It's a validation of the approach that UPnP takes, which is based on open Internet protocols," said Greg Sullivan, Microsoft's lead product manager for Windows. Microsoft long has criticized Jini because it requires Sun's Java software to run.

Neither company formally announced Sun's support of UPnP. Sun's name was quietly added to the list of supporters on the UPnP Web site on Tuesday.

The adoption of Jini in such gadgets has languished, and Sun and others are working on a slimmer version that doesn't require as much computing horsepower.

Meanwhile, other standards, such as Salutation, are emerging, while Hewlett-Packard has its own Chai software for making gadgets smarter.

UPnP also is nascent. Though there are more than 260 members of the UPnP Forum, Microsoft only began shipping UPnP software in its latest consumer version of the Windows operating system, Windows Me. The forum is now finalizing the technology so companies can start building prototypes of various home appliances that include UPnP.

Sun's joining of the UPnP Forum makes sense as a way to keep tabs on the competition, said The Yankee Group analyst Karuna Uppal.

"When you look at the face of it, it looks insane, but anytime you can get dirt on something that is competitive, any company would do it," Uppal said. "Universal Plug and Play is competition, and they need to get all the information they can get. And if they can join UPnP and get all the information they want, then why not?"

It's not just about information, though. Sun wants to play an active role in the forum, Sasaki said. "We'd like to make sure that nothing gets tied to any proprietary environment," a reference to concerns that UPnP will essentially be an extension of Windows that won't work with other computers.

Microsoft on Tuesday reiterated its position that UPnP isn't tied to Windows.

But Uppal agrees with Sun's concern that Microsoft could make UPnP dependent on its Windows operating system.

Jini's bottleneck "Microsoft always said the operating system doesn't matter, that you can use UPnP without the operating system," Uppal said. "But they do care. They make a living on the operating system. They will certainly optimize it for Windows. And they're obviously pushing Windows way beyond PCs to cell phones and set-top boxes.

"If Sun is creating something that was competitive, they want to make sure it doesn't extend the dominance of Windows beyond the PC," she added.

Sullivan said Microsoft has no plans to support Sun's Jini effort, reiterating the company's stance that UPnP is built on Internet-based standards, while Sun's Jini technology is based on the company's proprietary Java programming language.

"UPnP is truly built on the success of the Net, which makes it automatic and easy for all kinds of devices to connect. We have a small footprint and are not asking people to invent a whole new way of doing things," Sullivan said.

Sun argues that Jini has more capability than UPnP. Jini works with software as well as gadgets, enabling it to be used in large corporations with complex software jobs, such as airline reservation systems, Sasaki said. And getting UPnP devices to be able to describe what they can do, a feature built into Jini, would require higher-level software, he added.

Sasaki said it cost nothing for Sun to join the UPnP group and that Sun may withdraw if it wants. The company has only a technical membership that prevents it from attending business or marketing meetings.

Sun, like other UPnP Forum members, must be careful with what intellectual property employees reveal at UPnP meetings, Sasaki said. Sun employees "have to be very careful how they contribute intellectual property and even suggestions," he said. "We have to train our engineers not to be so verbose."