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Sun guarded about Netscape software

Sun Microsystems isn't saying much about its plans for the Netscape software that it will gain rights to when America Online closes its purchase of Netscape next spring.

Sun Microsystems isn't saying much about its plans for the Netscape enterprise software that Sun will gain rights to when America Online closes its purchase of Netscape next spring.

Stressing that the deal remains to be completed, a Sun executive said the long-term goal is to evolve Netscape's popular Navigator browser into an all-Java application, essentially reviving the so-called Javagator project Netscape scrapped for financial reasons. But he acknowledged that won't happen quickly.

For its application server, John Loiacono, Sun vice president of brand marketing, repeated Sun's pledge to support both its own NetDynamics product and the competing application server Netscape acquired from Kiva.

"We have yet to determine the action plan," Loiacono said Sun's scheme for managing the competing products. "We haven't done more than a cursory review as to whether merging [the competing products] is even technically feasible." "We have not determined if will we will pick A or B or merge them together," he stated. But both products are committed to using Enterprise Java Beans, giving future joint development efforts greater flexibility.

Both Sun's Loiacono and Netscape spokeswoman Andrea Fleming cautioned separately that because the deal doesn't close for 90 to 100 days, legal restrictions severely limit how much the two companies can work together, making definitive statements on product directions "premature."

An AOL representative could not be reached for comment.

"This is a very tenuous piece of the deal," said industry analyst Ron Rappaport of Zona Research. "Sun is talking about technology that it doesn't own."

Rappaport speculated that Sun could outright acquire pieces of Netscape technology in the future, but questioned a strategy of combining the Kiva and NetDynamics products.

Bill Ruduchel, Sun's chief strategy officer, said last month that while the core technologies of the application servers are competitive, each has different features or components that might be integrated.

Sun's rights to Netscape software are covered in two side deals it cut with AOL to expedite the Netscape acquisition. It will have a right to market existing Netscape software (including its application server and e-commerce software) through its sales force and resellers. AOL will retain ownership.

But Sun's real power is in a joint development agreement.

Both Sun and AOL will have intellectual property rights to anything that emerges from that joint development pact, Loiacono said, thus giving Sun a strong influence on future directions for Netscape software. But AOL does not have intellectual property rights to existing Sun products unless Sun puts them into the joint development operation.

"Once we develop products, AOL could sell that to their customer base. We also can sell to [AOL's]competitors. We have absolute intellectual property rights to do that," Loiacono said.

Netscape's Fleming stressed Sun's reseller relationship for existing Netscape software.

"Sun does not take over the enterprise products lock, stock, and barrel. Sun becomes our biggest OEM [original equipment manufacturer], and they sell our software through their 'channel.' We can't say what Sun will do in the future until the deal is closed."

The question of competing products also will apply to messaging servers, where both Sun and Netscape have products for managing corporate email systems.

For the AOL-Netscape merger, Fleming said that discussions between executives of the two companies are going on at high levels, but transition teams and working groups involving mid-level managers of both companies are not in place yet.