An alliance between Sun and other companies may spark a new round of battling between the Java leader and Microsoft in the arena of home networking.
Sun and an alliance of 14 other computer, phone, and electric utility companies said yesterday they plan to use Java to network consumer and small business devices.
But Microsoft, which has been sued by Sun over its use of Java, was absent from the company's home networking list. A Sun executive said the group wants Microsoft's support, but has yet to ask it to join.
The brewing conflict centers on a new home networking appliance that many technology and consumer electronic firms believe will become as ubiquitous in the home as a refrigerator or television set. Many companies are working on plans for a central server, or "gateway," that will be needed to network home appliances, PCs, and phone services.
The stage has been set for a collision between Sun and Microsoft over the underlying technical standards of the nascent technology. Although it's too early to claim that a full-fledged standards war is under way, the two giants will no doubt determine the future direction that will define products from a host of smaller companies in the industry.
"This is open Sun version versus the Microsoft operating system/PC-centric version," said Yankee Group analyst Boyd Peterson. "It's not a Microsoft exclusionary environment. These parties don't want hegemony over the whole thing."
The new group--called the Open Service Gateway Initiative (OSGI)--will create the software that allows hardware companies to build the home gateway appliance. Alliance members Ericsson and Motorola have announced plans to build a gateway, while IBM is already shipping its own product.
Microsoft executives declined to comment specifically on the new alliance until they learned more about its goals.
"We're believers in the whole concept of having a gateway in the house. It's likely there will be a device like this that provides common access to data inside the home with broadband network feeds distributed to other devices in the home," said Alec Saunders, group planning manager for Microsoft's intelligent appliance division.
While Sun has marketed its Java-based Jini technology as the networking software that would allow individual devices to communicate, Microsoft has touted its own technology called Universal Plug and Play. The major difference between the two is that most devices using Universal Plug and Play would have some form of the Windows operating system installed, a new Yankee Group report said.
Analyst John Todd of C.E. Unterberg Towbin said the new alliance is significant because it gives Sun and its partners a chance to compete against Microsoft in the burgeoning home networking market.
"It's the non-Microsoft camp's opposition against Microsoft," Todd said. "With all the homes out there and the whole small office environment, it's a large market, the stakes are very high, and it's important to control the standard."
Making a mark at home
Analysts believe home networking will start taking off later this year or early next year when broadband Net access, such as DSL or cable, becomes more available. A Cahners In-Stat study predicts that the U.S. home networking market will reach $230 million by 1999 and grow to $1.4 billion by 2003 as consumers use a mix of wireless, phoneline, and powerline technologies to network their homes.
Todd compares OSGI's move with Netscape's fight with Microsoft over the Web browser market. The browser interface helped people access the external network, while the home gateway, or central server, will help people access the internal network, he said.
"Sun and its partners are trying to define the interface around the home and compete with Microsoft," he said. "Microsoft has got their own initiatives, like Universal Plug and Play and things of that nature, which is why Sun needed to step up and start a standards group. Microsoft will be just as competitive as possible with their relationships, pushing Windows CE."
But some third-party vendors who signed up with the new alliance said they're software neutral and just want to push for a standard so they can build products for consumers. Nortel Networks, a cable and DSL modem manufacturer, plans to support both companies.
"Standards are very important to us. Look at TV. It took off because of one standard," said Cortland Wolfe, Nortel Networks' senior manager of carrier packet solutions. "Manufacturers feel comfortable when there's a minimum of confusion to the customers. Whether it's a Microsoft or Sun-oriented product, they don't care. They just want a standard in place."
But Wolfe added that the Java programming enticed him because it has cross-platform capabilities. "A lot of people are developing applications using Java today," he said. "What it meant for us is it's a common platform recognized by a lot of people developing Web-based services."
Todd said companies are jockeying for position in the market's early stages of development. "If I'm a large manufacturer, I'm going to place bets on both camps and see how it unfolds," he said.
Peterson, of the Yankee Group, added that it's too soon to call yesterday's announcement a full-fledged standards war. Every company in the home networking market should have a chance to compete.
"No one company can say, 'You can have my home network, my applications, on my infrastructure that I will charge you,'" he said. "There are things companies would gravitate toward. [U.S. energy company] Elron would have one view, such as energy management and remote meter reading. Consumer electronics providers would have something different."
The alliance's Web site said their proposed standard for a home gateway--which they hope to finalize by midyear--can support Universal Plug and Play as well as the Windows operating system. The standard would be submitted through Sun's Java standards process called the Java Community Process.
Jonathan Schwartz, director of enterprise products at Sun's Java software division, said the goal is to build a standard that offers Internet connectivity, allows users to easily install and de-install software, and offers a logging feature that helps collect information.
The alliance will move home networking technology forward, said Schwartz, whose company's Java application server for embedded devices will be used as part of the standard. "Internet access has proliferated in the office environment. But it isn't where it should be in the home."
Companies in OSGI include telecommunications equipment suppliers Alcatel, Cable & Wireless, Lucent Technologies, and Oracle, Philips, and Sybase. Some plan to ship products based on the standard in the third quarter.
Peterson added that the announcement to create a home networking standard shows that market is maturing.
"It's the next phase of the evolution of it," he said. "With the breadth of providers, you're starting to see interest across a number of industry sectors that are validating the concept of home networking."