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Sun puts new shine on Web services

The company works on its e-business software in hopes of capturing more sales. The larger goal: Catch up with market leaders BEA Systems and IBM.

Sun Microsystems has spruced up a key piece of e-business software in hopes of capturing more software sales and closing the gap between itself and market leaders BEA Systems and IBM.

Sun's iPlanet division next month will release an update to its application-server software, technology that runs e-business and other Web site transactions. Sun's new version includes tools that should make it simpler to build and run Web-based software and services using the Java programming language.

In the $2.25 billion application-server software market last year, Sun ranked third with 7 percent of the market, behind leaders BEA with 36 percent and IBM with 34 percent. Oracle was fourth with 5 percent, followed by Hewlett-Packard and Sybase with 4 percent.

In hopes of improving the company's market share, Sun executives say they plan to renew its software efforts with numerous product updates and strategy announcements in the next three months.

Sun, whose overall revenue stems mainly from selling expensive, high-powered server computers, recently took full ownership of the iPlanet software group after its partnership with America Online dissolved.

iPlanet, originally called the Sun-Netscape Alliance, was created in 1998 after America Online bought Netscape Communications. It featured e-business software products, programmers and salespeople from both Sun and Netscape.

Analyst Shawn Willett of Current Analysis said having Sun's thousands-strong sales force behind iPlanet could bolster the company's software sales.

"Sun is battling it out with Oracle for third and fourth place and is finally throwing everything they've got at it," Willett said. "The Sun sales force had an ambiguous relationship with the iPlanet software products before, but now they're going to have incentive to sell the software. They (previously) were busy selling hardware to meet their quotas, but now they have hard and fast incentives (from Sun management) to sell software."

Patrick Dorsey, an iPlanet product marketing director, said the company's updated application server--version 6.5--features a set of guidelines that show programmers step by step the best way to write software. And to save developers time, Sun is including new software components--pre-built chunks of software code programmers can use as building blocks when creating software.

Dorsey said the new product also offers better integration with Sun's Forte Java software programming tool, making it easier for developers to build Web services, software that is made available over the Internet on multiple devices, such as PCs and cell phones. Sun is also offering more training classes in hopes that more programmers will use Sun's application server.

Current Analysis' Willett said the new ease-of-use and time-saving features are Sun's way of trying to entice software developers to buy its application server.

"All the application servers are pretty similar, and companies are looking to differentiate themselves. And improving developer productivity is one of those things," he said.