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Sun beefs up software push with NetBeans buy

Sun Microsystems adds another company to its toolshed today, filling a hole in its Java development offerings.

    Sun Microsystems added another company to its toolshed today, filling a hole in its Java development offerings.

    Sun snapped up NetBeans, a Java development tool firm based in the Czech Republic. Sun also launched a $200 million investment fund to entice programmers to build Web applications using its "write-once, run-anywhere" Java technology.

    Sun follows in the footsteps of Oracle and other firms in creating its $200 million investment fund. Sun plans to invest in start-ups that will promote Java technology, Sun executives said.

    Sun has been in the market for additional software development tool makers for some time now. Sun said today's acquisition fills a hole in its product portfolio; it's Sun's second tools acquisition in the past two months.

    In August, the company purchased Forte Software for $540 million. That acquisition was completed today. Combined, the purchases give Sun the software tools that programmers need to develop e-commerce applications, Sun executives said today. NetBeans will be targeted at developers who are creating and experimenting with small-scale Web applications, and Forte's software tools will be aimed at large-scale applications that use application servers.

    With today's move, Sun is also in a better position to compete against Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, and dozens of others in the burgeoning e-commerce software market, said analysts. Before, through the Sun-Netscape Alliance, the company sold application servers that run the software and perform the transactions in an e-commerce Web site. But the company didn't have the tools to build the software.

    "Our goal is to provide the premier Java tools, from the very low-end to the highest-end possible," said Marty Sprinzen, vice president and general manager of Forte, now part of Sun's tools division.

    Analysts say Sun now has the tough task of combining all the different acquisitions into its company.

    "There's a challenge for Sun to successfully meld all these disparate labs, sales channels, and engineers into a comprehensive software business and to fire on all cylinders," said Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin.

    The NetBeans acquisition is the first major move since former IBM executive Pat Sueltz joined Sun as president of its software division, which is responsible for Sun's Java technology as well as its Solaris operating system.

    It's up to Sueltz to pull off the integration of the companies, Gilpin said.

    "They've not done this before, and since Pat joined Sun, we're hoping she can do that more effectively," he said. "They've been successful and historically perceived by customers as a major system vendor, but they haven't been successful at being seen as a major software vendor. Maybe that will change."

    Giga Information Group analyst Phil Costa said the NetBeans acquisition will help the company foster more support of Java in the developer community. NetBeans has been popular among Linux operating system and open-source advocates because at least some of its tools are given away.

    "Sun is trying to beef up its general tools offering and trying to get more grass roots support in the Java development community by acquiring and giving away the NetBeans product," Costa said. "This was the original goal of [Sun's Java tool] Java Workshop, but they failed to produce a usable product."

    Financial details of the NetBeans deal were not disclosed. The firm employs 40 engineers.

    During a press conference today, Sun executives announced their plans to sell three development tools stemming from the NetBeans and Forte acquisitions.

    NetBeans tools support Windows, Solaris, and Linux operating systems and offer users a graphical user interface for designing applications. The low-end NetBeans tool has been renamed the Forte for Java Community Edition and will be offered free to developers, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's vice president and general manager of Internet application and performance tools.

    A higher-end NetBeans tool, now called Forte for Java Internet Edition, is aimed at developers who are building business software that connects to a single Web server and database, Schwartz said. The tool will ship in the first quarter of 2000.

    Forte offers a product, called SynerJ, that features development tools and an application server. The development tool portion will be retitled the Forte for Java Enterprise Edition and aimed at developers building business software on multiple application servers.

    Schwartz said Sun will help users of Forte's SynerJ application server migrate over to the forthcoming Sun-Netscape Alliance's application server, which will be available in March.

    As for Sun's previous development tools, the company has killed off Java Workshop and will help its customers migrate to the Forte products, said Schwartz. The company's Fortran and C++ tools will continue to be developed and managed within Forte, he said.

    Costa said the NetBeans purchase will keep Sun's hand in Linux, while it tries to figure out what to do with the Unix-like operating system.

    Schwartz said Sun is pushing Solaris as the operating system to write business software, but added: "Linux is clearly gathering momentum in the marketplace."