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Sun And Microsoft Aim For Single Sign-On

Former archrivals seek interoperability in response to customer complaints

Microsoft and Sun Microsystems last week issued a progress report on the technical truce the companies called this year but gave little indication of what specific fixes they would devise to address customers' problems.

The companies, whose products are among the most widely used in IT shops, have been working since April to resolve differences among products that they say have created difficulty and expense for customers. During conference calls with reporters and analysts last week, Microsoft and Sun executives said they're developing a plan for the next decade that would make signing onto corporate-computer networks, working with 64-bit systems, developing 3-D graphics, and running Java software on Windows less of a headache for businesses that own products from both companies. In April, Microsoft paid Sun $1.95 billion to settle litigation between the companies about the Java programming language and other issues, and the companies established a plan for licensing technology and developing products that work better together.

"Nine months ago, we were slashing each other's tires," Sun chief technology officer Greg Papadopoulos said during a conference call with reporters. "It's a 180-degree U-turn." Early next year, Sun and Microsoft plan to disclose more information about what they say is a top complaint among customers: It's too hard to furnish computer users with rights to access programs that run on Sun's Solaris operating system and Microsoft's Windows. That kind of "single sign-on" is increasingly important as businesses weave together software that runs on multiple machines to create complex business systems and Internet apps. About 6.5 million computers run Solaris, according to Sun.


The two companies made a "180-degree U-turn," Sun CTO Papadopoulos says.

The two companies made a "180-degree U-turn," Sun CTO Papadopoulos says.
"It's not about converging .Net with Java," Papadopoulos said in a recent interview. But the companies want to integrate their products in a way that goes beyond industry standards efforts. "I wouldn't be involved at this level, [Microsoft chairman Bill] Gates wouldn't be involved at this level, for things that we thought were just standards efforts," Papadopoulos said last week. Executives from Microsoft and Sun have met 15 times since July, Microsoft director Andrew Layman says. Papadopoulos and Gates have been meeting, as have Sun CEO Scott McNealy and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

The single-sign-on problem has been a thorny one, says Daryl Plummer, an analyst at market researcher Gartner. "Any company of any sufficient size is going to have both Java and Microsoft technology," he says. "When you look at payroll and personnel systems to see how much money you have to hire a new person, a lot of systems are involved. You wouldn't want to have to log in to all those systems separately." But Sun- and Microsoft-based computers handle those logons differently and have exploited those differences to push customers to buy more of each one's technology. That means "there's a lot more work for the IT shop to keep [computers] running right," Plummer says. "It's a significant pain point for customers, and it's only going to get worse."

Executives from Microsoft and Sun say customers pushed them to cooperate and that customers continue to set priorities through advisory groups. Among the requests: devising Web services that work with both companies' software, making sure Windows runs on 64-bit workstations from Sun that use popular chips from Advanced Micro Devices Inc., getting Sun disk-drive networks to store information from Microsoft's database and E-mail programs, and ensuring that Sun's Java Virtual Machine software and StarOffice productivity suite run well on Windows.

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