Java camp takes cue from Microsoft

The software giant's rivals are countering it by adopting one of its most successful strategies: Offering easy-to-use tools to drive sales of server software.

Martin LaMonica
Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
6 min read
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Microsoft's fiercest foes--Java software providers--are showing growing admiration for their powerful rival.

The leading Java adherents--Sun Microsystems, BEA Systems, IBM and Oracle--have ratcheted up efforts to attract software developers through a tried-and-true Microsoft strategy: offering easy-to-use tools to drive adoption of more expensive server software.

The goal is to make Java the preferred software for building and deploying Web services applications, thereby driving sales of related software, including application servers, portal software and integration servers.


What's new:
Java boosters hope to lure software developers away from Microsoft by using its own strategy: offer easy-to-use tools to drive adoption of related server software.

Bottom line:
The only real alternative to Microsoft's .Net Web services software is Java-based server software. The fight for future Web services dollars may depend on who--Microsoft or the Java crowd--gets their programming tools into the hands of more developers.

More stories on this topic

Microsoft's successful Visual Basic tools, which allow developers to quickly build corporate applications, have long helped propel the growth of Windows-based software, particularly on desktop PCs. Since its emergence in the mid-1990s, Java, too, has been extremely successful. Java is used by millions of professional programmers, and Java-based server software is the only real alternative to Microsoft's .Net Web services software.

"There's only two stacks now, .Net and Java," Greg Papadopoulos, Sun's chief technology officer, said in an interview with CNET News.Com. "The world should have two, for competitive reasons."

But Java's sophistication has also been its liability. Java 2 Enterprise Edition--the server version of Java--is industrial strength, but it requires highly trained programmers to design and code applications. By contrast, Microsoft's bread-and-butter business in the tools market has been relatively easy-to-use tools, notably Visual Basic, which allow less-skilled developers to quickly build Web applications.

Right now, Java software makers are targeting simpler tools and server software at customers that build smaller applications. That's where the demand is, and where Microsoft has had a stranglehold on the market, analysts say.

"To continue to grow their businesses and tap into new markets, (Java vendors) have to identify markets where they haven't had a foothold before. And for Java vendors, that certainly is the low end," said Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk. "The opportunity at the high end just isn't there like it was a couple of years ago."

Big Java software makers are focusing on Web services, since businesses are adopting Web services standards to link existing applications.

This week, Java's inventor, Sun, will show off a new tool at its SunNetwork conference in San Francisco called Project Rave. The tool is designed to appeal to the millions of .Net developers familiar with Visual Basic. Sun plans to introduce Rave by the middle of next year.

"We got a lot of feedback from companies that they would like to use Java if the productivity and simplicity could be mirrored with what they experienced with Visual Basic," said Richard Green, vice president of development tools at Sun. "This will benefit Sun...(and) creating this greater appeal for Java is good for the overall industry."

BEA Systems recently launched WebLogic Platform 8.1, a Java-based suite of server software. The company, which is fending off bitter competition from IBM and Oracle, is betting in large part on the WebLogic Workshop development tool, which it says is a radically more productive development tool, particularly for integrating existing systems.

IBM later this year will update its WebSphere Studio development tool with a feature called JavaServer Faces, which makes it easier to tap into corporate data sources and build front-end interfaces. Also, IBM's Rational tools division is also assembling a product it said will enable rapid J2EE development through use of application modeling.

For its part, Oracle is planning enhancements to ease Java programming with its JDeveloper line with the forthcoming release of its Oracle 10g Application Server and database.

Not standing still
Just as Java tool makers plot their strategy, however, Microsoft is making a concerted attack on the J2EE stronghold of server-based applications. The company is hoping to win customers that build complex online reservation and manufacturing applications, for instance. Driving the adoption of Web services through its product line is central to Microsoft's server strategy.

At its professional developers' conference in Los Angeles next month, Microsoft will detail its latest weapon in its strategy to displace Java competitors from lucrative data center contracts. The company will discuss a "Web services framework" code-named Indigo that will work in conjunction with its Visual Studio.Net development tool to try to simplify the creation of heavy-duty Web services applications.

Microsoft's strategy, not surprisingly, is to offer a functional alternative to J2EE through its tools and server software. With the forthcoming Longhorn version of Windows, Microsoft intends to make the Web services "plumbing" simpler to access for developers through Indigo.

Java was able to drive a wedge into Microsoft's tools business when it was first introduced in the mid-1990s because it offered more power than Visual Basic and less complexity than other programming languages, such as C++. Java applications can also run on several operating systems while tools written with Microsoft tools run only on Windows. Microsoft executives say that the introduction last year of Visual Studio.Net, its multilanguage programming application for building Web services, helped close the lead that the J2EE crowd had gained.

Right now, Microsoft's .Net line of development tools and its J2EE-based competitors are running about neck and neck in terms of use. In a recent survey, Evans Data found that roughly the same percentage of developers--about 32 percent--are using .Net and J2EE for building Web services applications.

Businesses often have both Microsoft and Java-oriented software in-house. They frequently have programmers skilled in different languages and a mix of systems that accumulated over several years. Open-source tools for building business applications are also often a viable option.

"Even though it's pretty dead-even between the J2EE infrastructure versus .Net, we're finding that companies themselves are right down the line. It's not really divided," said Joe McKendrick, an analyst at Evans Data. "The question is not either/or, it's a question of how you leverage both infrastructures."

For instance, Pfizer Pharmaceutical runs many of its homegrown business applications on Windows, but chose BEA's WebLogic Java server software to integrate business processes across the company, said Richard Lynn, vice president of global applications and architecture at Pfizer. The J2EE architecture was better suited than .Net for Pfizer's application development strategy, Lynn said.

But as Microsoft escalates its attempt to win over developers building large-scale applications, some Java adherents are concerned that the technological merits of Java-based software are not enough.

Philip Brittan, chairman of Java start-up Droplets, said .Net poses a "dire threat" to Java.

".Net has a real strong chance to be the new standard for writing applications on the desktop and with (server-based) Web applications. Microsoft is positioned extremely well and it will take deft movement (on the part of Java software makers) to turn them away," said Brittan. "Sun understands Microsoft's strategy very well but they haven't been able to execute, and Microsoft has been able to blunt their attacks pretty effectively."

That's why Java's new appeal to a broader base of developers is so crucial, analysts say. Next year, J2EE application server software will be delivered with built-in support for Web services standards, which should further simplify development. Other planned enhancements will make Java simpler for building PC-based graphical interfaces that offer an alternative to Windows-centric front-end tools.

Even though .Net and J2EE will likely coexist in the near future, providers from both sides will compete bitterly for Web services dollars.

"The reasons these vendors are changing very quickly is because each side is trying to address their shortcomings and undermine the strength of the competitor. In a year or two, it won't be equal but it will be less clear-cut what's weak and not," O'Grady said. "They need to keep growing the pie and finding new segments to that they haven't taken advantage of before."