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Sun, Microsoft wrangle for TV turf

Sun gained a Java foothold in set-top boxes, but Microsoft is trying to outflank the move, showing that the companies only partially buried the hatchet in April.

Sun Microsystems and its allies gained a victory this week in establishing Java technology in TV set-top boxes, but rival Microsoft snapped up a Sun executive and countered with its own technology.

On Sun's side, the server maker and allies--including Ericsson, Intel, Matsushita, Nokia, Philips Electronics, Siemens and Texas Instruments--approved a version of Java for lower-end set-top boxes. The move could further Java use among cable operators looking for capabilities such as customizing programming guides or taking audience votes for favorite performers.

But Microsoft said this week it has hired a former Sun executive, James Van Loo, for its effort to promote its own TV technology. Van Loo, who worked on digital TV standards for Sun, left the company March 26, a Sun representative said. Now he is managing Microsoft's program for OpenCable Application Platform, the cable industry's standard for providing interactive-service software that will work with a variety of set-top boxes.

The moves indicate that Sun and Microsoft remain rivals despite having settled a major Java-related legal dispute in April with a pact that provides for some technology cooperation. Sun and Microsoft have battled for years for dominance in mobile phones, servers, desktop computers, automobiles and other computing areas.

Sun's Java software provides a foundation that lets the same program run on a variety of devices. Microsoft initially embraced Java, then dumped it in favor of its own equivalent technology--the C# programming language and associated Common Language Infrastructure (CLI).

Five years ago, CableLabs based its OCAP standard on Java, said David Rivas, chief technology officer of Sun's Consumer and Mobile Systems Group. That standard has languished because cable operators needed to support existing, less-sophisticated set-top boxes, not just higher-end models that might come out with OCAP support.

On Monday, Java backers approved a new version of Java called OnRamp to OCAP, which is designed for these lower-end boxes, Rivas said. The version will mean cable operators can write Java programs not just for a multitude of existing set-top boxes but also future OCAP boxes, Rivas said, predicting that more than half of set-top boxes will be OCAP models within two years.

Microsoft, though, on Monday announced it has submitted its CLI standard to CableLabs for use in OCAP as a rival to Java. CableLabs will set up a working group to evaluate the technology, Microsoft said.

Sun doesn't look favorably on the effort. "They're trying to re-engage CableLabs with a standard that's already been developed and set," Rivas said.