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Do Java spec and mantra clash?

Java backers' "Webtop specification" raises more questions than it answers.

A new specification, launched by IBM (IBM) subsidary Lotus Development along with Oracle and Sun Microsystems, is intended to unify the look and feel of Java applications on network computers and PCs.

But observers are scratching their heads and asking: "Why?"

The companies yesterday launched a new architecture, the "Webtop specification," which they say will allow NCs and PCs to run any Java application built to the spec. The spec's makers said it is intended to provide developers and hardware manufacturers with a common set of APIs (application programming interfaces). Those APIs would build and deploy applications for Java-based NCs, PCs, and other network-computing clients.

But observers are wondering what the specification means, given Sun's oft-repeated "write-once, run anywhere" Java mantra. Sun claims Java allows developers to build an application and run it unchanged on any Java platform.

Also unclear is why developers need an additional specification--on top of Java--to ensure portability. Since Sun has pitched Java as a complete platform, an additional specification to define a common framework seems redundant.

Worse, the full specification isn't yet available, and the companies involved aren't ready to provide additional details. The trio of backers plans to offer additional details within a month.

Today, analysts were at a loss to describe the new spec. IBM and other companies planned to brief analysts on the announcement yesterday but canceled the briefings at the last minute, leaving analysts in the dark as to the intended purpose of the specification.

Zona Research analyst Ron Rappaport said he's not even sure what a Webtop is. "They didn't want to get into much detail, because they haven't nailed everything down yet," he said.

Giga Information Group analyst Andrew Diamondstein said though they're lean on specifics, it's clear the companies are united behind developing an additional Java-based NC and PC user interface.

"It looks like they are trying to agree on a common set of features or standardizing those features," he said.

Lotus executives said the spec goes beyond simple user interface definition and is intended as an aid for developers building Java applications to deploy on multiple systems. The Webtop spec, Lotus said, will ease developers' worries about common application services.

Chris Jablon, a Lotus developer, said, "We've been in discussions for some time about a consistent platform. We thought we would work together to provide developers with a specification of APIs to help them out. It's all of us working together to extend Java."

Michael Sullivan-Trainor, an analyst with International Data Corporation, said the confusion surrounding the announcement may be intentional if the spec is really part of a larger strategy yet to unfold. "We may be looking at a platform called Web 98, which would be the second generation of eSuite," he said.

Sullivan-Trainor said the Webtop spec may be part of a larger strategy from Netscape Communications, Sun, and Lotus. The trio may plan to construct a series of tightly wedded Java products to pose a more formidable competitor to Microsoft's Windows.

The move can also be interpreted as a hedge against the possibility of a divided Java spec, which could result from the continuing legal battles between Microsoft and Sun. (See related story)

Prodding developers to pledge allegiance to an additional specification--above Java--will ensure that applications do run the same on each supported platform, regardless of what portions of Java are supported by Microsoft.

Other observers see the spec as a way for Sun and Java backers to make sure "NC" and "Java" are synonymous. A Zona Research report concludes that, in an effort "by key pro-Java-based NC vendors to quell this rising tide of alternatives and to reassert the perception that NCs and Java are subject to an unbreakable bond," the continued growth of non-Java based NCs led to the spec.

A final mystery is whether the spec's backers will license it to software developers for a fee. A press release issued yesterday stated simply that developers and hardware manufacturers will be able to license the spec from each of the participating vendors. Additional details are expected to be disclosed in the coming months.