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Sun Says Microsoft Alliance No Paper Truce 2

Sun president Jonathan Schwartz is emphasizing how important it is for his company and Microsoft to be true allies.
Customers of both Sun Microsystems and Microsoft continue to challenge the two companies to work more closely.

Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer, said in an interview last week that it's essential for both Sun and Microsoft to make their platforms work more easily together so buyers can base their growing Web services on both of them.

It appears that buyers will hold the pair to that goal.

"These two were pushed together by a common threat from IBM and open-source consortiums. They've come together to combat their continued erosion of market share," said Richard Plane, chief technologist of Harris Corp. Such alliances can't always adhere to their original ideals.

Schwartz said Sun "will do nothing to bias Java" for its own ends.

Customers might react negatively if they saw something in the alliance that appeared to compromise Java. "If we saw evidence of that happening, you'd see us vote with our dollars to make our feelings known," says Tony Scott, General Motors Corp.'s chief technology officer:

Aside from saying assuring things to the market, Schwartz offered tantalizing glimpses into some previously undisclosed discussions. For one thing, the armistice between the two companies, announced April 2, calls for Sun to license Windows communications protocols.

Schwartz said the agreement goes beyond the communications protocols to include "whatever is necessary to ensure interoperability," including Windows application programming interfaces.

The alliance "will eventually include other important areas, such as E-mail and database" products, according to the agreement. He said there has been no discussion of a Sun Solaris/Microsoft SQL Server database package, but suggested that Sun needs a database system to handle streams of management information being generated by its Java Enterprise System software stack, which includes an application server, a portal, and an identity server.

Another example of an unexpected area of scrutiny is that under Microsoft's .Net architecture, its Visual Studio languages, such as C#, Visual C++, and Visual Basic, all compile to a common intermediate byte code. Java also compiles to an intermediate byte code so Java applications can be moved over a network and run on different destination machines.

Microsoft's intermediate byte code "is very similar to Java byte code," says Yaacov Cohen, CEO of Mainsoft Corp., a company that capitalizes on the similarities by producing a bridging system between Java and .Net.

Asked whether the two companies had noticed their common ground, Schwartz said: "We are very strongly aware of the similarity in Java byte code and the byte code of the Common Language Runtime," the part of .Net that hosts and runs the compiled code from Visual Studio languages. (The compile step changes source code, which programmers can read as a language in letters and numbers, into ones and zeros that a piece of computer hardware reads.)

Schwartz gave a Sun twist to a possible outcome of collaborating on a shared byte code across the two companies' languages. "We want to make it as easy as possible to deploy Java in a Windows environment," he said, but both companies are also aware they must safeguard their intellectual property and haven't planned any moves on the byte-code front. They would do so, Schwartz suggested, only if it became clear such a step "ensures that we could create a rising tide that lifts all boats."

Outsiders think there's reason to collapse the distance between the two companies' languages, and perhaps subsequently, their respective legions of developers, by moving to a shared byte code.

One reason to do so, says Dana Gardner, an analyst with the Yankee Group research firm, is to combat their mutual enemy, IBM.

IBM is making progress with its open-source-tool initiative, Eclipse, as Sun struggles to get more revenue from its Java Studio toolset. IBM is also gaining market share in Unix servers at Sun's expense. In 2003, IBM's share had risen to 27%; Sun had fallen to 30%, compared with the year before, according to research firm IDC.

At the same time, IBM is reaping revenue from its WebSphere middleware by tying Java and open-source code to Windows systems and offering a low-end alternative to Windows in Linux on its hardware, moves that threaten Microsoft, Gardner says.

"If Sun had a snappy Java Virtual Machine integrated with Microsoft's Common Language Runtime, that would be the holy grail of developers--write in anything, run anywhere," Gardner says. Tools produced by the two companies might enjoy competitive advantage among developers, expanding their markets.

Neither Microsoft nor Sun has any enthusiasm for such a move today, he conceded, but if the Sun/Microsoft alliance endures, the picture could change. Tools based on a shared byte code could be used to develop apps for either Windows or Java. Such tools would have a competitive advantage over other products that are developed for either one camp or the other. They would, in Gardner's estimation, "shake up the industry."

Java shook the industry when it first appeared, and IBM was one of the beneficiaries, he notes. Java enabled IBM to put the Java Virtual Machine on its various hardware lines and move Java software across them without rewriting.

Schwartz, instead of contemplating a shared byte code with Microsoft, urged Microsoft to once again license Java. He said Microsoft has thus far expressed no interest in doing so. "It would do a world of good if Microsoft joined the Java Community Process," he added.

Large customers, such as GM's Scott, also think the alliance should work on installing a common Java Virtual Machine used across the Java community and Windows. "It would be nice not to have to worry about Java Brand A, Brand B, or Brand C. It adds useless complexity," Scott says.

A shared virtual machine "would ease the burden on IT," agreed Richard Seegmiller, chief information officer of Micro-News Network, a supplier of Java-based alerting systems.

To do so, however, Microsoft would have to relicense Java. Its original Java license produced a bitter court fight between the two companies over whether Microsoft had violated its terms. The two settled that dispute.