Even with Java's popularity increasingly on the rise, the legal fight between Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Microsoft (MSFT) may impede the future viability of Java as a cross-platform development language, analysts said.
"At issue here is who is in control of the Java standard," said Ron Rappaport, an analyst with Zona Research. "If Sun is in control, it will make sure that there is only one flavor of Java out there. Otherwise, there are bound to be different flavors."
Rappaport added that as the Sun lawsuit drags on, developers may be influenced by press releases and industry reports rather than the inherent technological value of Java.
"The longer the suit, the more developers will be in flux about Java as a development language," he noted. "The lawsuit has become the PR firm of the 90s, and Sun sees this as a way to keep Java in the spotlight. A long court battle, however, will dilute Sun's message."
The dispute between Microsoft and Sun is being waged just as the Java market is poised to reach critical mass. In a report released yesterday, Zona predicted that the market for Java software will total more than $58 million in 1997 and will triple by the year 2000, reaching nearly $180 million.
The bulk of that spending will be on application development and content creation technology, the report said.
Zona added that in the next two years, 97 percent of corporations will be using Java for server-based applications, according its survey of more than 275 medium and large corporations for the report, entitled "Java: Markets, Opportunities, and Trends."
"We found that the opportunities for Java on the server will exceed the opportunity for client-based Java," said Rappaport. "The opportunity is based on Java's inherent character and a tendency to view client-side Java as eye candy."
Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research concurred. "Sun just shot itself in the foot [by suing Microsoft]," he said. If developers now ask, 'Should we trust Java,' the answer is no. Wait until this whole thing shakes itself out."
Schadler added that Microsoft and Sun are bound to work something out soon because the suit is too damaging to Java and hence the Internet.
Analysts found that there is confusion in the industry as to what Java is: a programming language or an operating system. Rappaport says that Java is not an operating system comparable to UNIX, Windows, or Mac OS.
"There is a key marketing tactic to sell Java as an operating system," adds Rappaport. "Sun [Microsystems] positioned Java as something that can take on Windows. If people believe that then Sun has succeeded in its marketing strategy."
The Zona report defines the Java operating system as "a thin client-specific operating system typically used on a network computer (NC) or Internet appliance that is written in Java as opposed to any other development language."
"Never before has a programming language challenged an operating system," Rappaport said. "If the Java operating system doesn't run on hardware other than NCs, then it can't convincingly challenge Windows."
The report noted that the argument that Java is a cross-platform language has been under considerable scrutiny. Analysts found that vendors, including Microsoft and Netscape Communications, see HTML as the true cross-platform language, even though Java brings features to the table that HTML doesn't.