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Microsoft, Sun square off in the telco arena

The telecommunications arena is shaping up as another stage for software wars between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

    ATLANTA--The telecommunications arena is shaping up as another stage for software wars between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

    The giants see new opportunity in the previously closed telco market that is made up largely of proprietary systems built for operators such as AT&T, SBC Communications, and Bell Atlantic.

    That market--a roughly $500 billion opportunity for computer software, hardware, and services providers, according to experts--is evolving toward a more "open" model for software developers. Communications firms are finding they have to embrace a wider set of technology, as fierce competition for communications services revenue and Internet use grows. Additionally, firms realize that using generally accepted computing standards for networks could save substantial cash.

    With so much on the line, it is no wonder that the skirmish between Sun and Microsoft over competing software standards has moved to telecommunications.

    Following various announcements at the Supercomm trade show in Atlanta, Sun is attempting to further position its Java programming language as the glue to tie various telco systems together.

    Sun has the early advantage, according to analysts, given its roots in the Unix operating system. As evidence, Sun announced a $1 billion deal today with Motorola to supply systems for wireless networks based on Internet standards.

    "I'm not sure if Microsoft has paid a lot of attention on the high availability market we're discussing here," said Jean-Pierre Baudouin, director and general manager of Sun's embedded and telecom software efforts, at a press conference announcing the Motorola deal.

    "We're talking about software solutions that must not fail. We're talking about totally open systems. Third parties and all applications will be welcome," Baudouin said.

    Microsoft has also targeted the telco market as yet another opportunity for its own Windows operating systems and associated software development tools, known loosely as the Component Object Model, or COM. To buttress the company's strategy, Redmond sent president Steve Ballmer to speak to the conference crowd and announce the formation of a working group to promote COM-based interfaces in the telecom world.

    The working group builds on a "framework" Microsoft unveiled here last year, according to executives.

    "We believe it delivers solutions to market very quickly," said Jonathan Usher, a telecom industry marketing manager at Microsoft. "This is not replacing any standards group work. All of the vendors can contribute equally."

    Though both companies are talking standards, behind the discourse is the basic drive for dollars. Java software development for Sun increases the likelihood that a customer may buy its back-end computer systems; a similar COM-based development effort will necessitate accompanying investments in systems based on Microsoft's network-oriented Windows NT operating system.

    NT got a boost from Hewlett-Packard yesterday with the announcement of new high-availability systems, a key for the company if it is ever to crack high-end markets like telecommunications. Companies that use Unix operating systems, such as Sun, are thought to be far ahead in this area and already have huge deployments in the telco market, given Unix's history as a communications software system.

    With both camps floating their software as an "open" alternative to the other, network operators and their armies of programmers are caught in the middle. But the market has learned from the past, and may choose to leverage both technologies as they continue to upgrade their systems, according to analysts.

    "The game today is to get as many developers as possible," said Robert Rich, senior vice president telecommunications research and consulting at the Yankee Group.

    Rich said the underlying computer--whether it is a Unix-based machine or a PC-based system--will inevitably be an appendage to the application software technology a communications company would be looking for. The choice between Java-based software and a Windows-based offering, therefore, will be a significant one for communications providers as they attempt to embrace available computing standards.

    "I don't think there is going to be one winner here," Rich said.

    But some view Microsoft's Windows mantra as evidence they will only take advantage of their software dominance if given the chance in the telco market.

    "The bottom line is an open and standard environment," said Denis Bagsby, principal technical architect for SBC's IT technology planning department. "Long-term, that's my saving grace."

    Bagsby is using a Java-based scheme to connect disparate operating system software and associated tools that make up a phone company's information technology (IT) department. He said he preferred Java to Microsoft's COM alternative.

    "It's not going to cut the mustard," Bagsby said of Microsoft's development software. "The enterprise is bigger than a desktop?I've got a big mess to glue together."