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Microsoft's Java initiative grows cold

As the Java lawsuit drags on, the legal battle may be hurting Microsoft's ability to stay competitive in the Java tools market.

The protracted lawsuit by Java inventor Sun Microsystems against Microsoft has yet to force the software giant out of that market. As it drags on, however, the battle may be eroding Microsoft's ability to stay competitive.

While the suit has slogged its way through the courts for more than two years, the features of Microsoft's popular Java development tool have been frozen in time--and have slowly fallen behind products from competitors, analysts say.

Competitors such as Inprise, IBM and BEA Systems continue to improve their tools with the latest version of Java unavailable to Microsoft because of the legal complications.

"It's kind of dead. They haven't done anything to it for like 14 months," said Patricia Seybold Group analyst Anne Thomas Manes. "The product is no longer a competitive tool. A year and a half ago, it was top notch, one of the nicest development environments in the market."

Sun, which filed the suit in October of 1997, argues that Microsoft has built Java technology into its products that are incompatible with Sun guidelines. The company claims that Microsoft, which licensed Java in 1995, has violated its agreement and is not entitled to the latest versions of the technology.

Sun further argues that its rival has led developers to build Java programs that operate only with Microsoft's Windows--defeating Sun's "write once, run anywhere" goal and violating the letter of the Java licensing agreement.

A federal judge today reinstated part of a preliminary injunction against Microsoft, restricting how the company uses the programming language in its products.

Microsoft argues that today's ruling is largely irrelevant. The company claims that its products, including its Visual J++ development tool, have already been modified to comply with the injunction.

But while the injunction is in place, and while the two companies remain locked in a legal battle, Microsoft's Java tools are essentially paralyzed; the software maker claims its hands are tied by the ruling and that it cannot develop new products using Java until the suit has been settled.

Some analysts in recent months have wondered whether Microsoft would just drop support of Java altogether or build its own Java-like language. Microsoft executives could not be reached for comment today, but in an October interview the man who runs business development in Microsoft's developer tools division said the company was not allowed to discuss its Java plans because of the lawsuit.

"We have no change in our Java strategy," said the executive, Rick LaPlante.

Analysts say Microsoft's Visual J++ software development tool is lagging behind competing tools from IBM, Inprise, Sun and Symantec, which was recently purchased by a partnership between BEA Systems and investment firm Warburg Pincus Ventures.

Analysts say the other toolmakers now support a new version of Java, called Java 2, that includes improved security; improved graphics for software, such as icons, menus, and scroll bars; a programming model called Enterprise JavaBeans (EJBs); and technology called Java Server Pages, which allows Web pages to include Java applications.

Visual J++ is based on an older version of Java, version 1.1.

Manes said Microsoft's tool was a market innovator just 18 months ago. Visual J++ includes once-unique features that lead the market.

"J++ used to be ahead of everyone," Manes said. "Now it no longer has unique features."

Analysts believe that Visual J++ is still popular among developers, mostly because of its code editor, which the tool shares with other Microsoft tools, such as Visual Basic and Visual C++. But many programmers are moving to competing products. According to Market analysis firm International Data Corp., Microsoft had the largest market share in 1998, followed behind by Symantec, Inprise and IBM.

"We are definitely seeing more people use non-Microsoft Java development tools, because they want to use features like EJB (Enterprise Java Beans)," Giga Information Group analyst Phil Costa said. "But Microsoft tools are some of the best on the market. And people who use Microsoft's Java tool love it and are disappointed that Microsoft is letting this business-strategy issue get in the way of their desire to have the richest Java development environment."

While most of competitors, such as Oracle, Sun and IBM, have supported Java, Microsoft has its own proprietary programming model that ties developers to its Windows operating system.

In Visual J++ 6.0, the latest version of the tool, Microsoft added new class libraries, called Windows Foundation Classes, that effectively tie Java developers using Visual J++ to Windows. The foundation classes only work with Windows, as opposed to Sun's Java Foundation Classes, which work with Java Virtual Machines that comply with Sun's standard and run on many operating systems.

Another feature added to Visual J++ 6.0 was J/Direct, which allows Java developers to access specific features of the underlying operating system. That's great for Windows developers wanting to build Windows-specific applications. But it also goes against the original goal of Java as a "write once, run anywhere" language, according to Java's inventors at Sun Microsystems and other purists.

To comply with the judge's preliminary injunction, Microsoft added support to Visual J++ for the Java Native Interface, or JNI. The company originally designed Visual J++ to use WFCs, so that Java applications built with the tool would be tightly linked to Windows.

Microsoft was also required to change Visual J++ so that its default settings target JNI. If developer change the defaults to target WFC, the tool must present a dialog box that makes it clear to developers that their Java code is targeted to run on Windows only.

While Microsoft hasn't updated its Java products in months, it recently partnered with toolmaker Rational Software, which is building a Java compiler for Microsoft users. A Java compiler changes the Java software code into a language a computer can understand, allowing the computer to run the program.

Costa believes that Microsoft is continuing to develop its Java products internally in the meantime. But customers shouldn't expect new Java tools from Microsoft anytime soon, especially with judge's decision today to reinstate Microsoft's injunction.

"An update to Microsoft's Java technologies moved from the back burner to the back-back burner," he said.