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Sun sambas into Web-based software field with "Brazil"

Tired of its reputation as a hardware company that also happens to sell some software, the company will kick off a three-day analysts meeting to show that it can dance in other markets.

Sun Microsystems has software envy.

Tired of its reputation as a hardware company that also happens to hawk some software, Sun is planning to kick off a three-day analysts meeting Feb. 5 with a day of announcements aimed at proving it's a software contender.

Sun is expected to discuss new products that will simplify the development of Web-based software and will compete with similar technologies already announced by Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle, sources said. Microsoft introduced its .Net plan last summer, while HP and IBM have been delivering components for Web services over the past few years. Oracle jumped into the Web services fray just last month.

Like its rivals,

Meta Group says suppliers of Web-oriented system and tools software are continuing to play market leapfrog, with Sun Microsystems preparing to become the latest entrant.

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Sun envisions a future in which people won't have to install software on their PCs or Internet access devices. Instead, they will be able to access the software through the Web as a service, avoiding installation, maintenance and upgrade chores.

Analysts say early examples of Web services include the delivery of stock quotes and weather reports to cell phones and the ability to rent software, such as accounting or word processing programs, through Web sites.

Future Web services will allow e-businesses to pick and choose which services they want to subscribe to. For example, executives at an e-commerce site that needs a credit card validation service can do a search, find the service with the cheapest transaction fees, and then automatically subscribe to the service.

A key component of Sun's strategy is a software tool kit, code-named Brazil, which is aimed at simplifying the development of Web-enabled applications. Sun, like its competitors, sees the delivery of tools that can make fast work of services development as crucial to its plan.

Executives at Sun's iPlanet division confirmed that Sun's Brazil project, along with its iPlanet software, are part of a long-term "vision" that Sun will release over the next few months for creating reusable Internet services.

"We've been talking about the service-driven network for some time," iPlanet product marketing director Sanjay Sarathy said.

To date, however, Sun has failed to provide--or even explain--a comprehensive development framework to which programmers can write Web-enabled applications.

Brazil, in development over the past two years by Sun Labs, is downloadable in an early test-code version under a quasi-open-source license called the Sun Community Source License.

A representative for Sun Labs called Brazil "experimental" and said there was no timetable for turning Brazil into a shipping product.

According to Sun's Web site, "The Brazil project is an experimental Web application development environment ideal for Web-enabling devices, aggregating content from other Web applications and building personal Web portals that filter and modify aggregated content."

At the core of Brazil, as with Microsoft's .Net software-as-a-services architecture, is a Web application framework. Sun Labs originally developed the framework as a way to provide a URL-based interface to smart cards, according to the Sun Web site. The Brazil framework expanded to encompass all kinds of applications and devices.

Like Microsoft's .Net framework, Brazil is meant to allow developers to combine reusable components over the Web to create larger, Web-enabled applications. Unlike the .Net framework, which Microsoft has said will be language-independent and allow even Java programmers to write Web-enabled applications, Sun's Brazil framework is targeted, at least for now, at Java programmers only.

Whither the WebTone?
Even with Brazil and the coming services announcement, Sun's software strategy remains a mystery. Sun CEO Scott McNealy went so far as to say recently that the company does not have one.

In an interview in December, McNealy said Sun is pursuing a "systems strategy," creating an integrated hardware-software package loaded with Solaris, iPlanet, Java, clustering, storage, and so on, that Sun will shrinkwrap and sell to service providers.

McNealy says software, voice-over-IP, media, entertainment, data and audio are all converging onto a Sun system--which he calls a "big freaking WebTone switch." WebTone is Sun's concept of Web services that are always available from any location in much the same manner as a telephone dial tone.

McNealy said he is taking a page from the playbook of outgoing General Electric CEO Jack Welch. "When (customers) turn it on, then we start charging--power by the hour...Nobody is even close to owning his own integrated stack. We're browser-based, and that's why we're growing," he said.

Market analyst Amy Wohl questioned McNealy's reasoning. She said Sun remains a hardware company that, unlike IBM, has had no business model for making money from software.

"Every time Sun Jini's bottleneckdoes one of these announcements, I'm reminded that they have not been good at getting people to sign up in interesting volumes for the preceding pieces. Sun has lots of interesting ideas, but the sign-up has been thin," Wohl said.

Sun has been talking about the network as the computer for close to a decade. Three years ago, Sun took an initial stab at delivering software as a service through Jini, its plan for networking devices, independent of the underlying wire protocol. But with the rise to prominence of the Extensible Markup Language (XML)--a protocol for exchanging data seamlessly over the Net--the usefulness of a hardware-centric strategy like Jini has diminished.

Staff writer Deborah Gage contributed to this report.