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Sun and Microsoft: So far, so good

Firms say they've shed hard feelings and established a good collaboration. First product: common identity-management software.

Taking an intentionally cautious tone, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems executives said Wednesday that the first eight months of their 10-year partnership have yielded small, but significant progress.

The two companies held a press briefing to detail the areas of technical collaboration called for in a far-reaching and closely watched agreement. They indicated that the two industry heavyweights--once vocal critics of each other--have established a constructive working relationship.

"As a relationship goes, this is a 180-degree U-turn," said Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer, who has met a number of times with Microsoft Chief Software Architect Bill Gates. "Nine months ago, we were slashing each others' tires. Now we're helping each other fix each other's flats."

In April of this year, Microsoft and Sun announced a surprise agreement that called for a settlement of ongoing litigation; a commitment to refrain from suing each other on the basis of patents; and a technical collaboration to make their products interoperate. The deal resulted in payment of $1.95 billion to Sun.

Since then, there have been 15 meetings between top executives at both companies, and engineers meet on a monthly basis. Gates and Papadopoulos have also held meetings with common customers in order to guide their priorities.

As indicated earlier, the two companies said that the areas of technical collaboration involve making their respective network authentication systems work better together and that they intend to work jointly on Web services specifications.

Sun and Microsoft have collaborated on certifying Sun's AMD processor-based hardware for Windows. The companies have ensured that Sun's software products, including StarOffice and the Java Runtime Environment, can run on Windows XP Service Pack 2.

The two companies also said they intend to support a proposed standard called Web Services Management so that their respective management products can share information. They are also exploring ways to upgrade their products so that a systems administrator could manage a mixed network of Solaris and Windows servers from a single console, Papadopoulos said.

In the area of network identify authentication, Sun and Microsoft currently support different protocols for accessing a company network and for logging on to several sites at once from a Web browser. Sun was a founder and backer of the Liberty Alliance system for authentication, while Microsoft was co-developer of an equivalent specification called WS-Federation.

Executives at both companies said they have recognized this as a problem and will be working to let their customers log on to both Windows and Solaris servers at the same time. In the first half of next year, the first results from this early work will be available, Papadopoulos said.

In the area of Web services protocols, which define a way for machines to share information automatically over Internet protocols, Sun and Microsoft said they intend to work together to direct the development of new specifications.

Executives pointed to a few cases where they have already been co-authors of specifications, including WS-Management, WS-Addressing and WS-Eventing. In the past, by contrast, Sun and Microsoft were on opposing sides of standards proposals.

"The change at this point is that we've found it a lot easier to figure out what standards we should be working together on and designing in a way that works well for both of us," said Andrew Layman, director of distributed systems/interoperability at Microsoft.

He also said that collaborating on Web services during the specification development process will help Microsoft and Sun quickly create compatible products.

Company executives pointed to a few other areas of joint work, including Sun's support of Microsoft's storage protocols. And the two firms will be setting up a "competency center" at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus to allow customers to test out their applications on Sun's gear.

Without providing specifics, Papadopoulos indicated that Sun and Microsoft are exploring other areas of interoperability beyond what's being done in standards bodies.

"I wouldn't be involved at this level and Gates wouldn't be involved at this level if we thought these were just standards activities. There is real tangible stuff that our customers have told us to solve," he said.

Rather than set up a specific timetable with ambitious co-development projects, Microsoft and Sun executives chose to focus on near-term joint projects in their first comprehensive update on their alliance.

"We're being very cautious. When we do have something to announce, it's going to be looked at with a lot of interest," said Microsoft's Layman. "We want to make sure it lives up to expectations."