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Regulators eye Microsoft-JVM deal

Antitrust regulators are likely to take a keen interest in Microsoft's decision to license a Java Virtual Machine from Hewlett-Packard.

Antitrust regulators, who have been scrutinizing Microsoft's (MSFT) every move for months, are likely to take a keen interest in the software giant's decision to license a Java Virtual Machine from Hewlett-Packard (HWP), according to some legal experts.

But whether it will open a new front in the ongoing investigation remained unclear.

Industry analysts predict that today's licensing deal, coupled with Microsoft's own implementation of the Sun Microsystems programming language, will diminish the chances of a single Java standard. (See related story.)

As a result, Microsoft could find itself accused of further trying to fragment the language. That's because Microsoft has said it will license HP's Java Virtual Machine, or JVM, for its Windows CE operating system, which runs in small devices.

"Any move that provides ways for Microsoft to interfere with the proliferation of a unified Java front [could be] more evidence of the continued entrenchment of the Microsoft hegemony," said Mark Ostrau, an antitrust attorney at Fenwick & West in Palo Alto, California. "If they haven't already received one today, I'm sure HP will get a CID [civil investigative demand, or subpoena] in the very near future."

Others weren't sure, however, that the scrutiny would amount to anything.

"It's a little tough to get upset at Microsoft for licensing technology developed by HP," said Rich Gray, an antitrust attorney at Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray. Gray said an inquiry only would be warranted if the deal made Java more dependent on the Windows CE platform.

Further, despite its licensing deal with Microsoft, See special coverage:
Java chaos announced today, HP also has a thriving UNIX business, which competes with Microsoft's Windows NT operating system. Windows CE also has yet to take hold as an embedded operating system in small electronic devices.

A Microsoft spokesman rejected any notion that the company is trying to splinter Java.

"We view this strictly as licensing deal" that is good for customers, he said, adding that Microsoft would not speculate as to how antitrust regulators will respond.

As first reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, Sun said on Monday that it has received civil subpoenas from investigators at the Justice Department and a number of states. Sun declined to say exactly what information the subpoenas sought, but a person close to one of the investigations said allegations that Microsoft is attempting to splinter Java were a major focus.

In addition to the CIDs, Sun, in a lawsuit filed last October, accused Microsoft of intentionally trying to sabotage Java, which Sun promotes as a key solution for the Internet because it will run on any platform.

Sun alleges that Microsoft has made its version of Java incompatible with other platform versions in an attempt to stymie the development of the language.

It remained unclear whether today's licensing deal would bolster Sun's position in its suit against Microsoft.

A Sun spokeswoman declined to comment on any legal implications today's developments might have.