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Onstage squabble over ActiveX, Java

Sun and Microsoft trade barbs that belie the official position from both companies that Java and ActiveX are harmonious technologies.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sitting on opposite ends of the stage today at the Online Developers III conference, representatives of Sun Microsystems (SUNW) and Microsoft (MSFT) traded barbs that undermined somewhat the official position of both companies that Java and ActiveX are harmonious technologies.

Like most operating systems vendors, Microsoft has licensed Java to build it into its operating system. But what came to light today is that Microsoft's show of support has only prompted Sun to accuse the Redmondians of tailoring Java to run better on Windows than on other platforms. They've done this, Sun claims, by writing proprietary extensions based on ActiveX, Microsoft's architecture for writing small, interactive applications that run over the Net or with desktop applications.

Sun says it's worried that if too many Java developers start writing to ActiveX APIs instead of directly to Java, Microsoft and its Windows will come to dominate the Java development market.

Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft division, fired today's first salvo in his keynote speech when he warned that wrapping Java applications in ActiveX controls would lock them into the Windows platform and subvert the Java credo of "write once, run anywhere."

"You lose 80 percent of Java's functionality if you wrap it in ActiveX," said Baratz.

In the ensuing panel discussion, Baratz, Netscape Communications' vice president of strategic partnership licensing Danny Shader, and Microsoft program manager Charles Fitzgerald, squared off over the issue. Each conceded that developers will have to make hard choices when deciding upon Web content delivery systems, a revelation that didn't come as a surprise to any of the developers in the audience.

Microsoft's Fitzgerald didn't bother to rebut Sun's claim that Microsoft is tuning Java for Windows. He freely admitted that Microsoft wants to help developers make Java applets run better on Windows. He then turned the accusation around, implying that Sun is being hypocritical, or at least shortsighted, in claiming that its own Java Beans specifications will be completely vendor-neutral. Why shouldn't developers try to tweak Java for each individual platform, Fitzgerald asked, rather than adopting a "lowest-common-denominator approach" that runs anywhere, but doesn't provide any competitive advantages for anyone?

"You have to look at price, you have to look at performance," said Fitzgerald. "There's no business model around Java. Microsoft wants to make it a profitable business to develop Java."

Baratz denied the implied charge that Sun will eventually optimize Java for its own Solaris operating systems and issued a guarantee that Java will remain "write once, run anywhere," no matter what features get added.

"Our specifications are always published," said Baratz. "As we start rolling out the functionality, you can check it out for yourself."

Neither did Baratz and Shader lose the opportunity to cast doubt on Microsoft's claim that it will hand over control of ActiveX to a standards body on October 1. Shader cautioned developers to observe whether all of the ActiveX APIs or a limited subset actually end up in the hands of whatever standards body is chosen.

While Microsoft pledges firm support of Java as a programming language, it sees Sun's plans to turn Java into an operating system or a component framework for building full-scale applications as a competitive threat.

"When it comes to the programming language, Java is a cool programming language, and Java as a programming environment is cool, too," said Fitzgerald after the panel discussion. "But the component model and the operating system? Bring 'em on."

The panel also included representatives from more neutral companies, by the way, who chimed in to defend ActiveX as the technology most relevant to the operating system that currently runs most desktops. But that conclusion would be different if Sun's idea of a "thin client" with a much more compact operating system takes off.

"Java is not ready," said John Landry, chairman of the board of Narrative Communications, a developer of content streaming software. "ActiveX is great for existing implementations, but I would much rather move the debate to next year or the year after."