Aardvark Daily
Sun vs Microsoft, the facts, the prediction
Copyright © 1997 to Bruce Simpson, syndication rights available
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29 Oct 1997

Looking at Microsoft's chequered past, one gets the impression that they value their lawyers every bit as much as, if not more than, any of their technical developers.

For almost as long as I can remember, Microsoft have been in and out of court, battling for, or defending their rights.

So why are their lawyers sharpening their pencils and preparing to engage in yet another grizzly battle?

Well, let's look at the action taken against Microsoft by Sun. If you'll remember back a couple of years, Sun developed Java and everyone thought it was great. Many of the industry giants including IBM all rushed to license the product. Everyone that is except Microsoft.

Microsoft chose to wait a while, probably in the hope that Java would disappear as quickly as it appeared. Alas (for Microsoft), this was not to be and some months after everyone else, even the empire that Gates built had to conceed that Java was going to be important to their future and that they had to buy a license.

Now lots of commentators (including myself) were already speculating that Java was a real threat to Microsoft's dominance of the Wintel marketplace, some even going so far as to speculate that Microsoft would try to either seize control of Java or split the Java camp by producing a bunch of Windows-specific enhancements.

The first hint that that these commentators were right was the way that Microsoft didn't call their Java product "Java" - but instead created their own trademark and branding in the form of a product called J++.

You see, the contract they signed with Sun imposed some pretty harsh controls over what was allowed to carry the "Java" trademark. It was pretty easy to see that Microsoft wasn't interested in being bound by those restrictions and so chose to sidestep them through distancing itself from Sun's trademarked name.

After a while, Microsoft added Java support to its Internet Explorer browser - and a damned fine job they did too! IE3's Java was far more stable than Netscape 3's and it also ran a whole lot faster in most cases.

In the meantime, Sun was busy adding badly needed extra features to Java so as to produce a new version known as Java 1.1. To comply with the contract it signed, Microsoft was required to update its offerings and make sure they were compliant with the Sun specifications for Java.

Well... it seems (according to Sun) that Microsoft decided to change the way some parts of Java work - in particular a piece called the JNI (Java Native-code Interface). Instead of using the JNI spec provided by Sun, Microsoft chose to design and implement their own interface which they've called RNI and which, according to Sun, is not compatible with the Sun version.

If this is true then Microsoft is clearly in breach of their license agreement and there is a case to answer - but we must ask ourselves just how important this deviation from "spec" really is.

Firstly we have to ask why Microsoft chose to "do their own thing" with this piece of Java. Well the answer is that it probably makes it much easier for programmers to directly access the underlying functionality of the Windows operating system.

Some may argue that this is a good thing because this feature could make Windows based Java programs far more powerful, easier to write and much faster in operation.

However, the real problem is that it destroys the core objective of Java - the ability to write a program which will run (unchanged) on any Java-capable computer. The issue then becomes one of of pragmatism versus principle. On one side we have Microsoft and their minions arguing that they're using Java as just another programming language for the Wintel platform - while on the other side we have Java purists (including Sun of course) claiming that by providing a system that can be used to create non-portable software, Microsoft are, in one fell swoop, negating Java's single most important benefit to the software industry - seamless portability.

Which ever side of the fence you sit on and whether you're a Wintel pragmatist or a Sun purist it must be acknowledged that the early predictions of a "divide and conquer" or "embrace and control" strategies on the part of Microsoft appear to have come true.

One must also ask whether Microsoft's actions in attempting to split the Java market are those of a company concerned with providing the best possible software solutions, or those of a company who are fighting tooth and nail to protect their defacto monopoly of the desktop software market.

I'll put my neck on the line and make a bold prediction here. Watch Microsoft turn around and remove all the "Java" trademarks and logos from its J++ product. They'll even drop all reference to Java and start promoting J++ as a whole new product - which will free them from all the encumbrances of the Sun contract.

Of course they'll have to do a clean-room re-engineering of the software, but that's a small price to pay for having hijacked Java and effectively turned it into another Microsoft-owned product which targets only the Wintel, and maybe Macintosh platforms. In fact, it wouldn't suprise me if the clean-room version is already completed and waiting in the wings. You see, Microsoft have been playing a very smart game right from day one.

Unfortunately, whatever the outcome, Java is the loser. Already we see Java developers hesitating - unsure whether they should be following Sun's 100% Java line or "cheating" by using Microsoft's non-portable extensions and thereby creating products which may have a performance or feature advantage in the marketplace.

I'm afraid the only winners in this legal "battle of the titans" will be the BMW and Mercedes dealers as they break out the rolodexes and start touting their latest and greatest models to their key clientel - the lawyers.

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