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Sun questioned in MS probe

Regulators are turning their attention to Microsoft's relationship with Sun Microsystems, creator of the Java language.

As part of its ongoing investigation of Microsoft, the Justice Department and a number of states are turning their attention to the software giant's relationship with Sun Microsystems, creator of the Java programming language.

Sun spokeswoman Ann Little confirmed today that the company has received civil subpoenas "from various states and the Justice Department over the past few months." The department and at least 12 states are known to have launched broad antitrust investigations of Microsoft and its business practices, particularly its relationship with PC makers, Internet service providers, and online content providers.

The subpoenas could signal that the investigation now has grown to include Java, a ballyhooed development platform that poses a potential threat to Microsoft's dominant position in PC operating systems.

Citing the company's policy not to discuss ongoing governmental investigations, Little declined to say whether the subpoenas--also known as civil investigative demands--sought information related to Java or some other issue.

But a person familiar with one state inquiry indicated that Java increasingly is in the investigators' sights.

"We are looking very closely at the Java issue," the source said. "It is definitely the next issue that needs to be looked at."

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the probe would study a number of questions related to the language, including whether "there [are] any efforts going on by anybody that would hamper Java as an operating environment," whether anybody "is trying to balkanize Java," or whether "somebody [is] trying to appropriate Java."

In a lawsuit filed last October, Sun accused Microsoft of intentionally trying to sabotage Java, which some analysts say has the potential to threaten the Redmond giant's dominance in the PC operating system market. Sun's suit claims that Microsoft's implementation of Java in toolkit software and in the Internet Explorer browser balkanizes Java, thwarting Sun's promise that it will run on any platform.

The source declined to comment further on the investigation, and representatives from the Justice Department were not immediately available for comment.

Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray said that Sun's receipt of subpoenas was to be expected.

"It's not at all surprising that Sun or any other major player in the high-tech industry would be contacted for information," Murray noted. "We are quite confident that, when they review all of the information, they'll agree that Microsoft is competing in a way that is good for consumers and good for the industry as a whole."

In addition to information about Microsoft's handling of Java, Sun possesses other evidence that might be of interest to antitrust investigators. Sun's Solaris operating system competes directly with Microsoft's Windows NT, and Microsoft has indicated that NT is likely to replace all other versions of Windows in coming years, leading to speculation that soon it might receive increased scrutiny.

Rich Gray, an antitrust attorney at Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady, & Gray, said that he was not surprised to hear of the information demands, calling Java and NT the "two critical issues" surrounding Microsoft's alleged anticompetitive practices. So far, most of investigators' attention has focused on Microsoft's bundling of its Internet Explorer browser with Windows 95.

"To me, what is a far more significant than the browser or content-provider issues is whether what Microsoft is doing with regard to Java has implications for extending or protecting its monopoly position in the Windows operating environment," added Gray. "As far as I'm concerned, it makes all the rest of it look like minor-league stuff."

Two weeks ago, Sun chief executive Scott McNealy and Microsoft CEO Bill Gates squared off in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). At the time, McNealy said the company was considering bringing a private antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft.

In related news, documents made public today showed that special adviser Lawrence Lessig was leaning toward recommending a ruling against Microsoft, in the government's antitrust case before he was temporarily removed from his post.