Java standard vote opens door for Microsoft

Sun's control over the effort to standardize Java has slipped, and Microsoft is waiting in the wings with a list of enhancements.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Sun's control over the effort to standardize Java has slipped, and Microsoft is waiting in the wings with a list of enhancements.

Last week in Kyoto, Japan, a standards body called ECMA (formerly the European Computer Manufacturers Association) voted overwhelmingly to set up a technical committee called TC41 to standardize "write once, run anywhere" Java technology Sun invented.

The shift of responsibility to the committee has more than a procedural effect. The committee's control over the future of Java differs from the Sun-centric proposal Sun made when it redirected its standards effort to ECMA. Under Sun's proposal, ECMA worked within guidelines controlled by Sun. ECMA has effectively dropped the guidelines for the committee.

As a result, the door has opened for Microsoft to make some suggestions of its own. In fact, the company has a preliminary wish list in hand.

"We have a short list of things we want to submit," said John Montgomery, product manager at Microsoft's developer division.

Microsoft's disputes with Sun over Java culminated in a lawsuit brought by Sun. Indeed, Microsoft plans to submit at least one proposed modification during the committee's first meeting in August 11-12 in the San Francisco Bay Area, the company said.

Despite the setback that results from the existence of the committee, Sun appears to have won the day on its demand for Java running the same on all computers. The committee promised to make sure Java programs are compatible across computer systems. Microsoft hasn't decided what exactly to submit yet, but Montgomery said it would be "platform-independent," Montgomery said, not limited to one type of computer such as a Microsoft Windows machine.

The control issue has been the central point in Sun's years-long effort to standardize Java, and it appears that Sun has at least opened the door to some outside control.

Sun had proposed that the "evolution" of Java be handled by the Sun-controlled Java Community Process and that the committee handle only "passive maintenance" of the standard. But the technical committee's job description now says the committee will handle maintenance and makes no reference to the Java Community Process.

Sun said it was willing to abandon the Java Community Process wording in pursuit of the higher goal of standardization. "Working with standards bodies is all about compromise and consensus," said Ken Urquhart, manager of the Java standardization effort at Sun, in a statement.

Sun had been working with an International Standards Organization committee called JTC1 to standardize, but Sun was displeased with the degree of control it would have had to cede, and moved the standardization effort to ECMA.

One sticking point in the future will be use of the Java name, which is central to Sun's guarantee that a Java program will work on any computer--and also central to its plan to get licensing and royalty revenue from Java. A company must pass Java compatibility tests and must license Java before using the Java brand name on a product.

Sun still controls the trademark and name of Java, said David Smith, a Gartner Group analyst. But the term "Java" is conspicuously missing from the committee's name.

With the Microsoft lawsuit winding down, Sun's role in Java is moving from being the Java enforcer to being the Java marketer, said Mark Driver, another Gartner analyst. "Sun is increasingly less able to enforce Java," with independently created versions of Java proliferating and the courts sanctioning such behavior. "They're moving into a marketing mode."

The standardization effort is of dubious value, added Smith. "Sun continues to look for a rubber stamp on Java while they continue to control it," he said. A company-controlled standard would be a dangerous precedent for an international standards body, he said.

The vote
Microsoft was among the 23 companies that voted in favor of the proposal. Compaq Computer voted against, Hewlett-Packard and NEC abstained, and Dell Computer didn't vote at all.

Voting in favor were companies such as IBM, a strong Java backer, as well as Sun, Intel, Hitachi, Siemens, and Alcatel.

Interpretations of the committee's mission vary from company to company, indicating that the issue isn't completely settled.

Compaq was the lone company voting against the measure, citing concerns that Sun has decided to keep control over Java. That control means either that ECMA would rubber-stamp Sun's proposal, or that the ECMA standard would diverge from Sun's standard over time, Compaq argued in a letter circulated to members before the vote.

"We do continue to believe that customer and vendor interests would best be served by placing stable Java technologies under open, industry consensus control. However, Sun has made the decision to maintain single-company control through the Java Community Process," Compaq said in a letter obtained by CNET News.com.

IBM, on the other hand, supports the Java Community Process while acknowledging it's not the only way to submit new Java specifications to ECMA.

The committee will deal with the "mature elements of the Java standard," but the Java Community Process will be the place where new Java technologies are developed, said Scott Hebner of IBM's Java and E-business technology marketing group. Once the Java standards , the standards will feed back into ECMA, he said.

Confidence in Java
IBM is one of the companies that has been pushing Sun to standardize Java. "Confidence in Java is extremely high already, but this will further cement" that confidence, Hebner said. Confidence in Java means companies are more likely to invest money in the technology.

"Clearly we believe it's important for our customers and for the industry in general that these various vendors agree on a standards around Java and compete on the implementation," Hebner said.

Microsoft sees the future of Java as open to all comers, not just the Java Community Process. "Sun was trying to make it so the Java Community Process revved Java, and changes were automatically forced into an international standard without going through due diligence," Montgomery said. Now, though, Sun "can submit like any other member."

Alan Baratz described the Java Community Process as a "collaborative" process that can respond quickly to produce high-quality Java specifications, adding that Sun has very little control over it. In the Java Community Process, Sun chooses which Java standards to pursue, selects a leader who may not come from Sun, and steps in to break logjams.