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Apple's cross-platform Net gamble

While Apple tries to win back the hearts and minds of developers with Rhapsody, it's betting on WebObjects and Java to lift the company from its doldrums.

While Apple Computer (AAPL) tries to win back the hearts and minds of developers with its next-generation operating system, the company is betting on two other Internet technologies to lift it from its doldrums: WebObjects and Java.

At its Worldwide Developer Conference today in San Jose, California, Apple said that it would join a trio of companies--Sun Microsystems, Netscape Communications, and IBM--in supporting the Java foundation classes (JFC), a collection of tools that will control how Java applications look and feel.

The company also said that it will merge its WebObjects framework APIs (application programming interfaces) with the Yellow Box, the code name for its forthcoming application development environment. The integration between the two technologies will make it easier for users of WebObjects, a Net development tool Apple acquired along with Next Software, to create applications that can run on Windows NT, Solaris, HP-UX, and Rhapsody, Apple's upcoming operating system.

The Java and WebObjects announcements are aimed at kick-starting application development for Apple's Rhapsody operating system, a necessary precursor to wooing users to the new platform. But unlike its previous strategy, which was heavily focused on persuading developers to write to the Macintosh, Apple is promoting tools that produce cross-platform Internet applications.

For example, the company says it will make Java technology, including the JFC class libraries, a core part of Rhapsody. Java applications are designed to run unmodified on any platform that supports an application engine called the Java Virtual Machine.

By getting involved in the development of the JFCs, Apple is hoping to apply its legendary expertise in user interface design to cross-platform Java applications. JFCs will are being created out of two sets of user interface technologies: the abstract windowing toolkit and Internet foundation classes from Sun and Netscape.

"Apple has great expertise in this area and we're really happy they're on board with us," a spokeswoman for Sun's JavaSoft division said.

However, Apple is hedging its Java bets. The company said today that the programming interfaces for the Yellow Box will be exposed to Java applications. This means that developers will be able to extend their Java applications with native Rhapsody functions, but that the applications will not necessarily run on every platform.

That could help make Rhapsody an attractive platform for Java developers since applications might perform better on the OS. Microsoft has pursued a similar strategy with Java and Windows 95 and NT.

The integration of WebObjects framework and Yellow Box might also bolster Apple's cross-platform development tools strategy. WebObjects helps programmers generate dynamic HTML-based applications. Apple hopes developers will use Rhapsody to create their Net applications and then deploy them on a variety of different server OSes.

Apple announced new tiered pricing for WebObjects Enterprise today, beginning at $7,500 for workgroups, divisions, and unlimited users. A single developer version of WebObjects will cost $1,499.