Microsoft's holy war on Java

Internal Microsoft documents in Sun's possession detail an aggressive strategy for Redmond's "top priority."

7 min read
Microsoft so feared that Java would undermine its Windows franchise that its highest executives cemented partnerships with influential companies to prevent Sun Microsystems from getting them first, according to evidence not yet public in the high-profile lawsuit between the two companies.

After declaring the Java threat a "top priority," Microsoft sought to acquire, invest in, or close deals with several companies to "take mindshare away from Sun," according to internal Microsoft documents. As part of the strategy, the Redmond, Washington, software giant bought DimensionX and sought deals with Metrowerks, Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, and Fujitsu.

In addition to its acquisition and partner strategy, Microsoft explored ways to talk its most important Microsoft's aggressive Java strategy ally, Intel, into dropping work relating to Java media technology Intel was collaborating on with Sun. In July, citing "changing Java market conditions," the leading chipmaker quietly abandoned work on its Intel JMedia Player, a software developer kit Intel had spent at least 14 months developing.

The moves were part of an aggressive, multipronged strategy to compete against Java, a programming language Sun designed to run on multiple computer platforms. In theory, Java could allow computer users to run Web browsers, word processors, and numerous other applications without the need of Windows, a scenario that chairman and chief executive Bill Gates once said "scares the hell out of me," according to email Sun subpoenaed from Microsoft.

According to another Microsoft email message, the overall strategy, which at times sparked internal division among Microsoft executives, included letting the "Java [developer tools] space fragment so that 'write once, run anywhere' does not happen," referring to Sun's slogan for Java. While cross-platform Java products faltered, Microsoft hoped to drive its Windows-dependent Java products "to a broad installed base."

Microsoft, for its part, insists that its strategy violates no laws and is Java could allow computer users to run numerous applications without Windows, a scenario Bill Gates once said 'scares the hell out of me.' in compliance with the licensing agreement it signed with Sun. Legal experts agree that merely persuading a business partner to drop or alter a project probably would not be a violation.

"Microsoft has to be shown to have intentionally sabotaged [Java's] cross-platform ability," said Rich Gray, an attorney with Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray. Moreover, he said, "it's got to be they did it to protect their monopoly" in operating systems--a formal status that has yet to be proven in court.

However, the evidence provides a rare look at the intensity of Microsoft's competitive practices, which has been widely criticized by industry rivals and consumer advocates. The new details come as public scrutiny of Microsoft's Java strategy appears to be growing.

"Microsoft is hurting Java developers most by closing the door on Java compatibility in their Web browser," said Rick Ross, president and founder of JavaLobby, a trade group that represents 25,000 independent developers. A Java developer himself, Ross said in an interview that he has been in regular contact with antitrust enforcers investigating the firm.

Microsoft's Java strategy has gained nearly equal footing with allegations that the software giant sought to freeze Netscape Communications out of the browser market--once the crux of the landmark antitrust case government prosecutors filed in May. Attorneys from the Justice Department (DOJ) and 20 states strengthened their case against Microsoft's Java strategy just weeks after a federal appeals court ruling in June made it more difficult for them to challenge the integration of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Windows operating system.

The company's acquisition strategy was reflected in its purchase of DimensionX in May 1997. Microsoft's Java strategy now is on a par with allegations the software giant sought to freeze Netscape out of the market. As early as February of that year, Microsoft believed that the Java developer was close to being acquired by Sun "to augment their Java Media class effort," evidence in Sun's possession shows. In addition to denying Sun an important ally, Microsoft hoped that the acquisition would hurt Netscape, which was close to making an announcement on "push" technology that involved DimensionX.

According to internal Microsoft email, executives also were concerned about some of Intel's Java projects and explored ways to get the chipmaker to scale them back. In early 1997, one Microsoft executive pinpointed Intel's work on Java multimedia technology as "the area of most contention [between the two companies] since Intel does not see their work with Sun and others as bad for the overall PC space, only as good for Intel." Over the coming days, another Microsoft executive continued "to engage" Intel on the matter, encouraging it to curtail the work, or at the very least to carry it out "less visibly."

In 1996 and 1997, Intel was working with Sun on several Java-related projects, including a Java Media Framework, which would allow programmers on numerous platforms to use unified specifications for adding sound and graphics to Java applications. As early as mid-1996, the chip giant began work on its JMedia Player, a software development kit that optimized the Java Media Framework for the Intel platform.

Two months ago, Intel quietly killed the project, disclosing in a little-noticed press release that it was discontinuing development of JMedia Player "due to changing Java market conditions."

An Intel spokesman declined to discuss the specific reasons for discontinuing its JMedia Player. "We don't want to elaborate [on the press release] because it would tend to give us a position in the dispute [between the government and Microsoft] where we haven't had a position and where we don't plan to take a position," Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.)

A Sun representative confirmed only that the company is no longer working with Intel on any projects related to Java multimedia. "We haven't done any work with [Intel] on media specifications for several months," said the spokeswoman, who declined to speculate on a reason for Intel's decision to drop the collaboration.

To be sure, Intel's decision for dropping its JMedia Player could have been made for reasons that have nothing to do with Microsoft. Java applications tend to run more slowly than those based on other languages, especially when executing video, audio, and other media functions. And it is no secret that Intel and Sun have had their differences on technical issues, including the way Java executes "floating point computations," or features that carry out 3D graphics as well as complex scientific and mathematical calculations.

Nonetheless, Microsoft was only too happy to point out to Intel the serious performance problems Java was facing and to capitalize on the friction between Intel and Sun, according to evidence detailing a high-level meeting between executives of the two companies. Microsoft also reminded Intel that widespread use of cross-platform Java could reduce demand for Intel chips. The two companies also allegedly agreed to find ways to make Java run best on the so-called Wintel platform.

Sun's evidence also reveals just how contentious Microsoft was only too happy to point out to Intel the serious performance problems Java was facing. discussions about Java strategy became among top executives at Microsoft. "Clearly the work the Java team is doing has hit a raw nerve with you," Ben Slivka, an executive overseeing Microsoft's Java team, wrote in an email message to Gates.

Java put Microsoft in a seeming no-win predicament. Executives did not want to ignore a technology that was fast becoming the rage among developers. But they were also concerned that developing Java put Microsoft on a "treadmill" that "validated" a technology which would compete with its bread-and-butter product, Windows.

Ultimately, Microsoft appears to have chosen to make features in its version of Java "platform independent only as necessary to compete with Sun's cross platform offering.... We remain on the treadmill only until our platform specific...innovation can outpace Sun's platform independent work enough to gain critical mass," some of the evidence reads.

Sun's evidence also details Microsoft's public relations strategy surrounding Java. Microsoft sought to change "the context of the discussion" of Java by relegating Sun's cross-platform version to a plain-vanilla form "similar to ANSI compliance in a C compiler."

In other words, Microsoft wanted Sun's version to be seen as a bare-bones product that needed enhancements to take full advantage of each supported processor and operating system. Microsoft included in its Visual J++ tool certain technologies to enhance Java application performance on Windows. "To be productive on the high-volume Windows platform, developers will very much want to take advantage of the full features of J++," a Microsoft executive predicted.

Microsoft's Slivka also cautioned his colleagues about "being negative about Java precisely since there is so much religion about it." Rather, he said, the company should "calmly point out the strengths of Java and the strengths of the Microsoft platform in complimentary ways."

"We need to embrace the merits of [Java Evidence demonstrates the great lengths Microsoft took to compete with Java, but it will be an uphill battle to prove the strategy was illegal. technologies] and then move beyond them and provide value above and beyond the offerings" of Netscape and Sun, another Microsoft executive, John Ludwig, told his colleagues.

Microsoft maintains its strategy is perfectly legal and in full compliance with the licensing contract it signed with Sun in March of 1996. Spokesman Jim Cullinan said Microsoft fully supports cross-platform Java applications and claims that its Java Virtual Machine will run them better than any competing versions.

"What we thought about [in developing J++ ] was, 'We're a Windows company. What is the best way for developers to write the best Windows applications?'" he said. "In doing so, [we] allow developers to use the great features and functionalities that are specific to our platform."

Cullinan also defended Microsoft's dealings with Intel, saying: "It's an appropriate decision for Microsoft to say, 'Listen, we have a better technology.'" He added that recent moves by Intel make it clear that the two companies by no means have an exclusive relationship. Intel recently agreed to license streaming technology to RealNetworks, a move largely seen as at odds with Microsoft.

The reason Java has stalled is that it has failed to live up to its "write once, run anywhere" promise, Cullinan said--which has "nothing to do with Microsoft."

Indeed, legal analysts say Microsoft's opponents face an uphill battle in proving that its strategy was illegal. "It's something that would definitely have to be looked at, but that's not the same thing as saying it is wrongful," attorney Gray said.

Regardless of the legal definitions, JavaLobby's Ross believes that Microsoft has done a disservice to the thousands of independent developers his group represents. "We suffer because Microsoft has produced a polluted Java which destroys our ability to leverage Java's current and future [cross-platform ability]," he said.  

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