Sun wrestles with Microsoft for Web-services crown

The computing giant says it came up with and still has the best plan for turning software into a Web-based service.

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Sun chief outlines Web-services strategy
Scott McNealy, CEO, Sun

Will the real inventor of Web services please stand up?

Sun Microsystems executives believe Microsoft stole its vision of Web-based computing, and the company set out Monday to prove that it came up with the idea first.

Sun outlined a technology road map for Web-based software and services, following similar announcements by Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and others.

At a press conference in San Francisco, Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy explained how its software developer tools, Internet infrastructure software and operating system products will serve as the underlying plumbing necessary to build, run and manage Web services.

And McNealy scoffed at any suggestion that Sun was late to the game. "We've been doing network services since we got started--every computer we ever shipped since 1986," he said.

Like every software company, Sun sees a future where people don't have to install software on their PCs or Net devices. Instead, they can access the software through the Web--avoiding installation, maintenance and potential upgrade problems.

This vision of computing, which has morphed into the marketing buzzword, "The Network is the Computer," has long been touted by McNealy to counter Microsoft's dominance in PC operating systems. But last summer, Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon to tie Windows closer to the Web.

Gartner analysts Daryl Plummer and David Smith say Sun's Open Net Environment contains many good ideas, but the company must do more work before enterprises can understand the true impact of the initiative.

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Microsoft's new plan, called Microsoft.Net, is part of the software giant's goal of maintaining Windows' dominance even as computing shifts toward portable devices such as cell phones, Web-surfing appliances and personal digital assistants.

Because Microsoft's Web services strategy was announced eight months ago, Microsoft representatives say Sun is simply copying Microsoft. But analysts and Sun executives say Sun still has the head start.

"They're not late to the game," said Edward Broderick, senior research analyst with Robert Frances Group. "Some are very good on hype and what we call 'vaporware'--others deliver."

"We're ready now, and they're not going to have anything until 2003," said George Paolini, Sun's vice-president of Java community development. "They're ahead of us in being able to get the message out; that's all they're ahead on."

To be fair, Microsoft does have a two-year plan to ship all its .Net software products, but its new software development tools for Web services, called Visual Studio.Net, are expected to ship later this year.

Paolini said Microsoft's .Net strategy only reinforces that Sun's original Web-based model is truly the wave of the future. In the past, Microsoft has championed the storage of data and applications on the PC rather than on a network.

"It was basically a very sincere form of flattery because they essentially emulated the Sun model for network computing," Paolini said. "They basically conceded that the network is where computer intelligence and collaboration should take place, not on the desktop."

As reported earlier, Sun on Monday announced Sun Open Net Environment (ONE), a two-year technology roadmap for software developers to build Web-based services and software using the Java programming language.

Sun executives said its Forte software development tools, its iPlanet e-business software developed by the Sun-America Online alliance and Sun's Solaris operating system all are part of Sun's infrastructure for delivering computing services over the Web.

Sun said the company's strategy differs significantly from Microsoft's strategy its applications, software and developer guidelines are based in Java and XML (Extensible Markup Language), a Web standard for data exchange.

Microsoft's strategy does support XML, but the company is trying to steer developers away from Java.

After recently settling a lawsuit with Sun over Java, Microsoft announced a new set of software development tools and services that will allow programmers to translate their Java software code to support Microsoft's strategy.

Marge Breya, chief marketing officer of Sun's iPlanet division, says developing Web services based on standards is as important as standards adopted by the auto industry to build cars.

"Interchangeable parts on the assembly line completely revolutionized manufacturing in the 20th century," Breya said. "What we're announcing today is our dedication commitment to make those interchangeable parts for Web services."