Microsoft ploy to block Sun exposed

Evidence indicates that Microsoft executives, including Chairman Bill Gates, sought to steer the direction of a Web services standards body away from rival Sun.

4 min read
Microsoft executives apparently attempted to steer the direction of a Web services standards body away from rival Sun Microsystems, according to evidence and testimony introduced during the software giant's ongoing antitrust trial.

E-mail messages from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and other executives, introduced during testimony last week, offer rare insight into the political maneuverings of the company. In an e-mail to top executives, Gates indicated that he approved of Microsoft's involvement with the Web Services Interoperability Organization (WS-I) as long as Sun's role was minimized.

"I can live with this if we have the positioning clearly in our favor. In particular, Sun not being one of the movers/announcers/founding members," Gates wrote.

An attorney representing the nine litigating states and the District of Columbia read portions of Gates' e-mail, concerning a project code-named foo, during last Tuesday's cross-examination of Microsoft Senior Vice President Jim Allchin.

During the cross-examination, Allchin said he was "not 100 percent sure" that Gates was referring to the WS-I. But in a February deposition, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said the term "foo" was used internally at Microsoft to refer to the WS-I before the organization was officially founded. Sources familiar with the e-mails also said the term foo was used at Microsoft to refer to the WS-I.

Microsoft and Sun executives declined comment on the court testimony.

At the root of the "shenanigans"
The information lends credence to Sun's claims that Microsoft had tried to limit Sun's involvement with the WS-I, which was launched by Microsoft and IBM in February and aims to promote Web services by ensuring that software from various technology makers is compatible.

More than 100 companies have joined the group. Sun has declined an invitation to join as a contributing member, lobbying instead for more influential "founding board member" status so it can set the group's agenda.

Sun in the past has accused Microsoft and IBM of "political shenanigans" for not giving it equal status in the organization. In the WS-I board's original response to Sun's campaigning, IBM and Microsoft opposed Sun's entry into the WS-I board. But fearful that the political infighting would derail the organization's efforts, IBM earlier this month proposed adding two new board members in a move that could pave the way for Sun to join as a founding member.

According to a transcript of Allchin's testimony, Microsoft executives wanted to make the WS-I unappealing to Sun and favorable to its technology.

"We got emphatic feedback from you that foo should be technically unpalatable to Sun," wrote Charles Fitzgerald, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategy group, in an e-mail to Microsoft executives introduced as evidence last week. "Foo gives us air cover for both de facto implementation adoption and our next wave of standards in this space," he added.

Similarly, Ballmer, in his deposition, said that Microsoft and IBM did not expect Sun to enthusiastically support the WS-I effort because of Sun's positioning of its Java technology as the best language for software development.

"We and IBM... wanted to make sure that that work (through the WS-I) was really open to multiple operating systems, multiple programming languages, etc...not a direction we expected Sun to be enthusiastic about since they see the whole world as being written in the Java language," Ballmer said.

The cost of politics
Analysts say they fear that the politics among IBM, Microsoft and Sun could put a damper on the emerging Web services market. Web services technology can provide a more efficient way to build software and link systems from multiple companies. But to be useful to businesses, software from multiple vendors must use compatible standards and specifications.

Microsoft and IBM have created several Web services standards over the past two years that have been adopted industrywide. And while Sun has been initially slow to adopt those standards, executives there say they now see Web services working hand-in-hand with Java--and are building Web services into the latest Java standard.

Sources say a measure to add two members to the WS-I board would probably require a unanimous vote by the current nine-member board, which also includes BEA Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel and Oracle. Sun executives have applauded IBM's proposal and said they may now join the group.

Microsoft executives, who initially opposed Sun's entry as a WS-I board member, now say they will give IBM's proposal to include two new board members a fair look.

"We won't walk in (to the meetings) with a predetermined notion with how we see the proposal," said Neil Charney, Microsoft's director of .Net Platform Strategy, in a recent interview. "We're going in with an open mind."

If approved, Sun is not necessarily guaranteed a spot on the board. The entire membership of the WS-I would vote on which two companies would join the board.

Analysts were not surprised by Microsoft's stance toward Sun, as revealed by the e-mail messages. The two companies have a long and acrimonious history.

"It's Microsoft-hates-Sun and Sun-hates-Microsoft stuff," said Illuminata analyst James Governor. "It's really not surprising that Gates doesn't want Sun driving any standards. The two companies hate each other."

Governor added that "IBM is seemingly more able to play the political game than either of these two vendors. IBM has been able to play the vendors off each other. Sun and Microsoft hate each other, while Sun and Microsoft only hate IBM some of the time."

News.com's Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.