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Better Together? Sun And Microsoft Need To Get Real

Web-user log-on specs could cut GM's integration costs. But 'we need to make it real. We need to have real products with standards that work,' GM interim CTO Killeen says.
After more than a year of work, the hundreds of Microsoft and Sun Microsystems engineers, managers, and executives hashing out details of the companies' legal and technical détente have this to show: a pair of draft specs for logging on to Web sites submitted to a slow-moving standards body and promises to support those specs in future products. The deliberative pace could indicate just how far apart the companies were to begin with.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Sun CEO Scott McNealy in May said the vendors published technical specifications that would make it easier for PC users to sign onto Web sites backed by Windows' and Solaris' different authentication schemes, without constantly retyping their names and passwords. "We're going to run each other's protocols, which is a big statement," Sun chief technology officer Greg Papadopoulos says. "Does that come in Longhorn for them and the next major release of the Java Enterprise System for us? It could be."

In addition to the Web work, Sun has licensed a Microsoft protocol for running Windows sessions on a thin client, which could lead to easy-to-administer Sun desktops that run Word, Outlook, and Excel. But Sun's and Microsoft's deliverables seem to fall short of Ballmer's prediction last April that the agreement "in a cosmic sense, has impact for everything" the companies do.

At that time, Ballmer and McNealy revealed a broad agreement under which Microsoft would pay Sun $2 billion to settle lawsuits that had arisen from Microsoft's use of Java. The agreement also provides a contract for the companies to license each other's technology for better computer-network interoperability.

The early fruits of that work could cut computer-engineering costs for joint customers. "Connectivity between the desktop and the Web has been very poor," says Fred Killeen, systems development director and interim chief technology officer at General Motors Corp. The "Web single sign-on" specs published in May could help cut GM's help-desk and integration costs, he says. And GM would find "interesting" a SunRay thin client that runs Windows applications to reduce software upgrade costs in call centers. Now, he says, "we need to make it real. We need to have real products with standards that work."

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