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Sun faces Java strategy challenges

As Sun's JavaOne conference comes to a close, developers and analysts are asking hard questions about the evolution and future of Java.

SAN FRANCISCO--As Sun Microsystems (SUNW) enjoys the buzz from its third JavaOne conference here, developers and analysts are asking hard questions about the evolution of the little programming language that could--specifically, whether Sun can continue its momentum while wearing so many hats.

Many of the questions would go away if Sun decided to treat Java strictly as a research-and-development investment that doesn't necessarily need to generate large profits beyond the license fees for the core Java technology.

But Sun's cash cow--the Solaris operating system and the large computers needed to run it--will face mounting competition from Microsoft's NT operating system in the next five years. If that threat proves substantial, the Java market might become an inevitable destination, with all the software, hardware, and services it could entail.

And the more Sun competes with its licensees, the harder it will be to hold its status as the arbiter of the Java standard. All of which makes for an intriguing year ahead.

As Evan Quinn, director of Java research for the industry analysts International Data Corporation, said, "1997 was the year of Java mind-share building, but 1998 is the year for Sun and its partners to bring product to bear. This is the year that we stop the hype."

The hype is unlikely to stop as long as Sun and Microsoft trade punches over Microsoft's attempts to win developers over to a Windows-only version of Java.

On Tuesday, Sun won a preliminary battle in its lawsuit against Microsoft, but at the keynote speech the next morning, Sun executives acknowledged that legal hassles might distract developers. Chief executive Scott McNealy nonetheless vowed to use the courts when necessary to defend the Java brand. Reaction was mixed among observers who work with Java every day.

"Sun should differentiate Java on the performance of the JVM [Java Virtual Machine] and the richness of the classes and not fight battles in the courts to protect trademarks," said Paul Ambrose, chief technology officer and founder of WebLogic. "I don't want the Fortune 500 and 1,000 [companies] afraid of investing in Java because of this cloud."

Much of that cloud is of Microsoft's making, Ambrose noted. But he also refused to pillory Microsoft for giving developers the choice of writing Windows-only Java applications.

"There isn't a developer in the world who doesn't know he's locking himself into the Microsoft platform [by using Microsoft's development tools]," he said. "Of course, Microsoft is trying to lock you in, but that's what good God-fearing capitalists do."

Others expressed concern not only about the danger of distraction, but also that Sun--which is supposed to be the Java diplomat as it lobbies to make the technology an international standard--will lose the moral high road if it uses lawsuits as a means of keeping Java pure.

"With more lawsuits they'd be shooting themselves in the foot," Quinn said.

Given that HP's Java clone, announced late last week, might potentially violate Sun's copyright of the Java blueprint, Sun has treaded quite lightly all week, with its executives insisting that they want to negotiate, not litigate, if there is a copyright breach. HP denies it has broken any rules.

Because Sun wants both to profit from Java and be its official proponent as an international standard, the company's actions in the coming year will be under intense scrutiny. If it tries to compete with other software makers, it could end up stepping on a lot of toes. So far, Sun has delegated the commercial Java production to its SunSoft division, which theoretically has a church-and-state separation from the JavaSoft division.

"SunSoft should be free to compete in the market," said WebLogic's Ambrose. But he cautioned that the "incredible petri dish" of the Java software market still needs nurturing. Sun should do a better job at telling software makers where it plans to compete and where it will step back.

"They haven't been too good at articulating loudly and clearly what they're trying to do with commercial implementations," Ambrose added.

Sun indeed spent much of the week reassuring consumer hardware makers that it would not jump into their business. The company has also promised that the Java Web Server, a product currently under the auspices of JavaSoft, will mostly serve as a "reference implementation"--a detailed prototype that developers can use to build their own products--and won't compete.

SunSoft has no intention of taking over responsibility for the Java Web Server, according to James Hebert, general manager of SunSoft's embedded systems software division. When JavaSoft developed an operating system based on Java, the company had to shift it over to SunSoft to market it as a commercial product.

Even if SunSoft, which does compete in the Java development tool space, ramps up its efforts to build Java software for business, no one seems too worried.

"SunSoft isn't noteworthy for its enterprise software," said Anne Thomas, editor-in-chief of the analysis newsletter Distributed Computing Monitor.

At least one developer is prepared to see Sun provide commercial software in the areas not covered by third parties.

"It's not really a worry, but I expect them over time to move in the direction of filling in [the gaps] with implementations," said Patrick Vermont, director of Apptivity product management at Progress Software.

Perhaps the largest question looming this year is, can Java run everywhere if Sun and Microsoft don't come to terms? Sun executives maintain that the goal is to get Windows up to 100 percent compatibility. Some have suggested, perhaps facetiously, that Sun should pay Microsoft to get there.

Whatever the method, developers here such as Christopher Woodward, research and development director of Virtual International, are adamant that Java stay unified. Events such as JavaOne that rally the troops are crucial, according to Woodward.

"If we don't learn from the mistakes of Unix and the fragmentation in that market, the same thing will happen all over again with Java," he said. "Ultimately you have to enlist the aid of programmers, because they're the ones who decide where the market is going."