The fight between Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Microsoft (MSFT) over Java escalated to a legal mano-a-mano today, but nobody's betting which company will blink first or whether anyone can ultimately win.
Sun is suing Microsoft for several reasons, all related to the contract Microsoft signed to become a Java licensee. The software giant has deliberately excluded parts of the latest Java Development Kit and altered other parts. Sun asserts this violates the contract; Microsoft denies that. The contract, meanwhile, remains a secret, so no one except the warring parties and their lawyers really know for sure.
But the allegations, threats, and the very real lawsuit could have negative impact for both companies.
"Any time you involve lawyers, there tend to be a lot of losers," said analyst David Smith of the Gartner Group's Internet services division. "There won't be a mass exodus, but some people could be scared away from Java."
At the same time, Sun will cut Microsoft off from new Java technologies until the dispute is resolved. If resolution is slow in coming, Microsoft's Java development platforms, especially Internet Explorer, will risk losing credibility among developers, despite Microsoft's insistence that it has the "most compatible" Java implementation.
Sun said there isn't a risk of alienating Windows developers, however. "We're cutting off Microsoft, not Windows," said George Paolini, director of marketing for Sun's JavaSoft division. "You still have access to Windows through Navigator and through [Sun's] Java Runtime Environment for Windows."
McNealy took Paolini's message a step further this morning when he urged the audience to vote with their pocketbooks.
"You tell Microsoft what they should do," he said. "We want this to be tried in the court of public opinion. I can't just count on the courts. The best way to deliver this message to them is to buy Navigator."
Like IE 4.0, Navigator 4.0 isn't fully compliant with the latest Java Development Kit, but Sun said that's all right as long as Netscape doesn't make false claims of full compliance while it works toward it.
McNealy's outright plug for Navigator made Microsoft executives reemphasize their argument that the IE 4.0 test failure and subsequent lawsuit are Sun's last-ditch effort to forestall the advances Microsoft has made in browser market share.
"Sun has no ability to impact the shipment or deployment of Internet Explorer 4.0...and has apparently decided that they can't compete in the marketplace," said Microsoft director of platform marketing Cornelius Willis.
At stake is not just browser share, of course, but the fight to free up some of Microsoft's operating system share. "This is a critical moment for both companies," said Dataquest principal analyst Chris LeTocq. "If Microsoft caves in here, they've diluted their Windows franchise quite severely."
Microsoft has stated openly and frequently that Java is not just a language but a platform that threatens the market share of Windows. Yet the Java groundswell might prove too large to walk away from, noted another analyst.
"It's way too important an emergent technology for them to not want to desperately control it," said Giga Information Group vice president Ira Machevsky.
Sun refused to speculate on what would happen if Microsoft decides to walk away from Java, saying only that its goal was to bring Microsoft back into full compliance.
Could Windows developers live without Java? Developers are starting to look at new innovations such as Dynamic HTML and Extensible Markup Language (XML) instead of Java for certain Web design features, but they won't replace Java as a cross-platform programming tool, according to several analysts and developers.