While largely expected, U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte's clarification is a crucial first step for Microsoft's business strategy for Java, which includes the use of independently produced Java technologies for its developer toolkits, according to a court brief recently filed in the case.
Analysts said a so-called "clean-room" implementation of Java is vitally important to Microsoft's goal of blunting Java's cross-platform appeal, while at the same time capitalizing on its growing popularity. The company's Visual J++ toolset is used by more developers than any other Java tool, said Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group. With a version of Java free of Sun's licensing restrictions, Microsoft could once again modify its own Java tools to favor the Windows operating system.
The brief indicates that Microsoft has seriously considered marketing independent Java works for nearly four years.
In a lawsuit filed in October 1997 in federal court in San Jose, California, Sun accused Microsoft of violating its Java license by introducing proprietary extensions into versions of the cross-platform technology Microsoft distributed with its Windows and Internet Explorer products. In November, Whyte ruled that Sun was likely to prove at trial that Microsoft's version of Java violated Sun's copyrights and that Microsoft engaged in unfair competition. Whyte ordered Microsoft to alter its Java products so that, while the suit continued, they passed Sun's compatibility tests.
In a tentative ruling issued today, Whyte clarified that the injunction does not prevent Microsoft from developing or marketing Java technologies that do not specifically contain Sun code, both sides said. Such a version of Java would be developed independently from Sun's technology using clean room techniques and other means.
"Microsoft is very pleased with the court's ruling this morning," Microsoft associate general counsel Tom Burt said in a statement, adding that it reassured to the marketplace "that innovation [will] not be restrained."
Sun spokeswoman Lisa Poulson said an official version of the order had not yet been issued and cautioned against reading too much into excerpts released by Microsoft. She added that the ruling specifically prohibits Microsoft from marketing products derived from Sun documentation or source code. In addition, she said, Whyte indicated that he would later decide whether independently produced works violate the Java license.
"The order needs to be read in full to be understood," Poulson said. A copy of the ruling was not immediately available to the public.
Both companies' rhetoric aside, the ruling could prove crucial to Microsoft's plans for competing against Java, a computer language that in theory would allow software developers to write applications that run on numerous computing platforms with little modification. At present, many developers write only for the Windows platform, saying it is not worth the expense of writing for less popular platforms. If Java's cross-platform promise were realized, it could undermine the popularity of Windows.
In addition to the Microsoft's very visible move of licensing the Java code, the company's strategy to compete also includes the use of independently produced clones of the technology.
Last March, Microsoft announced plans to license Hewlett-Packard's Java clone for embedded devices, which was more recently dubbed Chai. But according to a brief Microsoft filed last month, the company's plans to market independently produced Java technologies go well beyond the deal with HP.
"As interest in the Internet and the worldwide web increased in 1995, Microsoft decided to create its own independent Java implementation based on publicly available information," Microsoft attorneys revealed in a brief filed last month appealing Whyte's preliminary injunction. "By early 1996, Microsoft's own implementation of the Java technology was nearly ready for distribution."
The brief went on to say that "restrictions on the development and distribution of independently developed Java technology limit Microsoft's plans for future developer tools...which make no use of Sun's intellectual property."
In public statements, however, Microsoft has been more guarded. Other than its announcement to license Chai, the company has not disclosed any plans to market independently produced Java technologies, and Microsoft spokesman Jim Cullinan said it would be "premature" to say that Microsoft intends to use such software.
Nonetheless, Burt said in his statement today that cloning "is an option that is becoming more interesting in light of Sun's efforts to limit innovation and make Java a clearly proprietary technology."
Cullinan confirmed that, before licensing Sun's Java code in 1996, Microsoft was "far along" in independently developing a Java compiler and virtual machine. He said that rather than distributing those products, Microsoft opted to license Sun's Java code "for a variety of reasons." Cullinan did not elaborate.
Independently produced clones are a common way companies work around a competitor's intellectual property rights to create competing products. In addition to HP, Transvirtual and open-source organization Mozilla have also developed clean-room versions of Java.