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Judge: Did Microsoft make Java better?

The judge hearing the Microsoft antitrust trial asks if a senior Sun exec's chief complaint was that the software giant had created a better version of Java.

    WASHINGTON--The judge hearing the Microsoft antitrust trial under way here today boiled down four days of back-and-forth testimony by asking if a senior Sun Microsystems executive's chief complaint was that the software giant was more nimble and had created a better version of Java.

    U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's question, put to Sun vice president and Java creator James Gosling, goes to the heart of Microsoft's defense and took many in the court by surprise.

    "A goodly portion of Microsoft's cross-examination has had to do with evidence [suggesting that] what Microsoft did is grasp the significance of the work you were doing and then ran with it and produced a better version of it. They simply couldn't wait for you to catch up," Jackson told Gosling, who finished his testimony today, wrapping up the eighth week of the trial.

    "That was the implication," Jackson continued. "How do you respond?"

    "They represent it as better, but their version of better is tied to the Windows platform," said Gosling, who appeared relaxed and composed after hours of sometimes mind-numbing testimony regarding various technical issues. Microsoft's Java "prevents interoperability with other platforms," he added.

    In written testimony, Gosling claims Microsoft has tried to thwart Java's cross-platform promise by "flooding the market" with a version of the programming language that is dependent on Windows. The Justice Department (DOJ) and 19 states allege that Microsoft viewed Java as a threat to its dominant Windows franchise and illegally used it to crush the technology. The companies' dispute also is the subject of a private lawsuit pending in federal court in San Jose, California.

    In both cases, Microsoft argues that the Java virtual machine included in Windows 98 and Internet Explorer runs cross-platform Java better than any competitor's product--including Sun's. At the same time, Microsoft says its Windows-optimized version of Java allows programmers to better take advantage of the unique features of that platform.

    Outside the courthouse today, David Boies, the lead prosecutor for the Justice Department, acknowledged that the question Jackson posed to Gosling "reflects the fact that he was impressed with a number of points Microsoft made in its cross-examination [of Gosling]." Boies added that he believed Jackson was "also impressed with the answer that the witness gave."

    John Warden, who heads Microsoft's defense team, declined to speculate on the judge's question, but repeated that "Microsoft competed hard with Java and got ahead of Sun. Sun is understandably unhappy about that. Anything you heard from the witness to the contrary was about what might have happened in the future in the utopian world of engineers."

    Earlier today, Microsoft attorney Tom Burt confronted Gosling with an April 1996 email showing that Sun executives were aware Microsoft planned to build Windows-specific extensions into Java two months before the companies signed a license for the technology.

    Despite the evidence of the warning, however, Gosling remained adamant that Microsoft tried to harm his company, and defended Sun's reluctance to work with the software giant on the project.

    "Our view was that when Microsoft was often holding out their hand, there was a knife in it, and they were expecting us to grab the blade," Gosling told the court. He argued that Microsoft could have built a Windows-customized version of Java that did not violate the license.

    Gosling said he did not believe, when he learned Microsoft planned to add the extensions to Java, that the modifications would create legal problems. "We were in general assuming at the time that Microsoft would not violate the license," Gosling said. "We presumed this wasn't something that required us to send a nasty-gram from a lawyer."

    Last month, U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte, the judge hearing Sun's private suit against Microsoft, issued a preliminary ruling that sided with Sun. He ruled that Microsoft's version of Java was incompatible with Sun's and ordered the software giant to add a Sun technology known as Java native interface, or JNI, to its products.

    Gosling said today that Microsoft's ability to comply with the ruling demonstrates that the Redmond, Washington company would have had little trouble making its Java products compatible with Sun's.

    Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray used a lunchtime break to criticize the government for "clearly...waging a PR war" with Microsoft by leaking confidential information to the press. Murray said advertisements Microsoft took out in several newspapers today was designed to counter that strategy.

    On Monday, the govenment is expected to call Edward Felten, a computer science professor, to the stand. Trial is not held on Fridays. Felten will be the tenth witness out of a total 28 expected to be called. Today concluded week eight of a trial that lawyers on both sides said would last six to eight weeks.