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Sun rolls with the punches on Java

Talk about bad timing. Right as Microsoft launches a drive to take on the perceived threat of Java as a platform, Sun gives the software giant plenty of ammunition.

Talk about bad timing. Right as Microsoft (MSFT) launched a drive to take on the perceived threat of Java as a platform, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) provided the software giant plenty of ammunition.

In the span of a few days, Sun has stumbled over its "100 Percent Pure Java" marketing campaign and suffered a preliminary rebuff at the hands of an international standards organization.

"We're seeing two major shots in the foot by Sun," said David Smith, research director for the Gartner Group's Internet services division. "One is the defeat over ISO. The other is their backpedaling on the '100 Percent Pure' campaign."

The ISO defeat refers to the international standards body that this week rejected Sun's bid to submit Java as a technical standard yet keep most of its control over the technology. (See related story)

Also this week, the company took steps to address problems with the "100 Percent Pure" campaign, which it launched earlier this year to promote Java applications that aren't tied to one specific platform.

Amid developer complaints that reaching 100 percent Java purity has not been as easy as first expected, Sun proposed the interim step of a "100 Percent Pure Pending" label, a way to give recognition to developers committed to writing pure Java applications. But the company has since nixed the idea, saying it caused too much confusion.

"It's something we've floated since June, but there was a lot of confusion about it," said JavaSoft representative Elizabeth McNichols. "People thought we were giving the '100 Percent Pure' logo to applications that weren't there yet."

"Pure Pending" developers were to receive marketing benefits such as discounted advertising and preferred positions at trade shows. The idea faded quickly, however, as the company didn't want to be perceived as diluting the "pure Java" stamp.

In addition, the company has added a feedback page to its Web site for developers who are having trouble getting up to 100 percent speed.

"The page will be up for a while," said McNichols. "The whole idea is to gauge if developers are ready to test and certify their applications. If not, then we want to know how Sun can help them out."

Thirty-six companies so far have achieved 100 percent purity, and 100 more are in the process of certification, according to Sun.

But everyone from developers to Sun officials now acknowledges that Java is not yet as rich as it will have to be to lure developers away from other platforms. Software maker Symantec, which sells Java development tools written in C++, hasn't made a high priority of porting its products to 100 percent Java.

"We're incorporating pieces of Java as they're necessary," said Sheri Schurter, Symantec's senior marketing manager for Internet tools, but she said the company is devoting its resources to giving Java developers access to the language. "Our customers are saying it has to have more stability, faster performance, more consistent cross-platform capability, and better database connectivity. The language at this point isn't what it's going to be."

That message should have been clearer when Sun began promoting Java heavily with radio and print ads, said the Gartner Group's Smith.

"I would say that the marketing campaign was too successful," Smith said. "'100 percent pure' is ahead of its time. They promised too much, and it's causing a delay in the natural cycles of Java, which has ups and downs like all new technologies."

Sensing that Java is in a "down" cycle, Microsoft has launched a press tour to argue that Java is a great programming language to make Windows applications, but as a platform, it can't compete with Windows.

"This is an indictment of Sun's marketing strategy, not the technology," said Cornelius Willis, Microsoft director of platform marketing.

Despite Sun's strategic setbacks and Microsoft's renewed criticism, the Java platform is poised to hit an "up" cycle, thanks to recent NC framework and JavaBeans announcements, Smith said.

"Sun and its allies are generally doing a good job, and the seeds of the next upswing have already been sown," he said.