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Will MS kill Java with kindness?

JavaSoft thinks Microsoft might love Java to death.

In recent weeks, Microsoft has begun feverishly preaching the twin gospels of both Java and its own ActiveX architecture, describing how the two technologies cooperate, rather than compete.

But officials at Sun's JavaSoft division are afraid that the Microsoft strategy of "embracing and extending" Internet standards such as Java with its own technology may turn out to be a suffocating bear hug that could result in applets crippled on all platforms but Windows.

Microsoft has married Java and ActiveX in its Internet Explorer 3.0 browser for Windows 95 and NT, which features a Java engine modified to allow applets to run as ActiveX components. Not itself a programming language, ActiveX is a set of rules governing the way software components written in any language, including C++, Visual Basic, and Java, communicate with each other. When joined with Java, ActiveX allows developers to create more sophisticated applets, such as multimedia applets, than developers could create with Java alone, Microsoft argues.

Even as the debate grows sharper over ActiveX and Java, it's clear that Microsoft has succeeded in stamping its own indelible signature on Java technology. The change has JavaSoft shuffling to keep Java true to the company's original goal of applets that can run on any platform, regardless of the operating system or underlying hardware.

JavaSoft objects to the Microsoft extensions on the ground that it could create frustrating incompatibilities for users, the very situation Java was intended to avoid.

"Those applets [created under ActiveX] cannot be written once and run everywhere," said David Spenhoff, JavaSoft's director of product marketing. "They can be written once and run on Windows."

Microsoft officials see the combination of Java and ActiveX differently, needless to say. They argue that developers will create certain applets that run decently on "lowest common denominator" PCs and other applets that provide much richer experience for users under Windows.

Microsoft also argues that it's hypocritical for JavaSoft to criticize since Sun is itself in the process of extending Java itself. Along with IBM, Netscape Communications, and others, the company is developing the Java Beans specification, a set of rules that Sun says will allow applets to work with a range of component architectures such as OpenDoc, not just ActiveX.

Here again, Microsoft counters that ActiveX is the architecture that matters most since it's more popular with developers. "The difference is it's an industry that we're bringing to the Java developer," said Cornelius Willis, group product manager for Internet developer marketing at Microsoft.

Outside the two companies themselves, reactions are mixed. Some Java developers welcome the added capabilities of Microsoft's Java extensions. "Content providers are going to want to provide the best experience they can," said Karl Jacob, CEO of DimensionX. "There are not going to be second class citizens. But not everyone has a Mitsubishi TV with surround sound in their living rooms."

Still other developers are leery of getting locked into ActiveX?sometimes derisively referred to as "CaptiveX."

"If 80 percent of Java applets use ActiveX APIs, that's 80 percent of the market that Microsoft will own," said one Java developer who asked to remain anonymous. "I would hate to see a world where Java was reduced to just another programming language for ActiveX. The problem is people see Java as a solution. I see it as a goal."

Last week, Microsoft tried to counter such claims that its ActiveX architecture is proprietary by announcing it will hand ownership of it over to a standards body. The company this week also underscored its plans to port ActiveX to Unix and Mac platforms with the help of outside vendors such as Metrowerks and Bristol Technologies.

Some analysts said that this kind of open, cross-platform ActiveX would provide a good complement to Java, but expressed doubts about Microsoft's ability to deliver.

"Is Microsoft really going to invest in building all of that [ActiveX] infrastructure on other platforms?" said David Smith, research director for Internet strategies at Gartner Group. "There are a lot obstacles to that happening. Frankly, it's a very tough undertaking."