Java court decision resolves little

A ruling by a federal US appellate court on Monday had both Microsoft and Sun Microsystems claiming small victories in their dispute over Java, but its users won't get a clearer sense of the language's fate from the ruling, observers said.

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals lifted US District Judge Ronald Whyte's November 1998 preliminary injunction against Microsoft. That injunction forbade Microsoft from shipping Java products and software that are incompatible with Sun's Java platform because it might violate the Java licence that Sun granted Microsoft.

Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn called the decision positive but emphasised that the trial is far from over. Sohn said the company has no plans to revert to its previous Java offering, despite the injunction's demise. "Right now we're going to stay the course,'' he said.

The judges lifted the injunction for the technical reason that Judge Whyte didn't sufficiently substantiate some of the basis of his ruling. In particular, they said he needed to explain whether shipping an incompatible version of Java would violate Microsoft's licence and constitute a copyright violation or whether it would violate independent contractual obligations instead. The judges also ruled that Judge Whyte must decide whether Microsoft would act unfairly in the future rather than basing his decision solely on the company's past conduct.

However, the appeals court also said it agreed with Judge Whyte that evidence suggests that Sun will likely prevail at trial. Jon Kannegaard, interim president of Sun's software products and platforms division, said that affirmation should clarify for Java developers that Sun's version of Java is the standard and that deviations aren't allowed. Sun has contended that Microsoft has sought to undermine Java by confusing the market with incompatible versions.

Observers said that Java users will find little closure or direction in Monday's decision.

"It probably won't have a major effect,'' said analyst Mark Driver of the Gartner Group. Even though the balance of the case seems to be leaning Sun's way, he said, Microsoft can still opt to produce a "clean room'' clone of Java that isn't restricted by its licence from Sun, or could offer an alternative to Java, codenamed "Cool", to the market. Cool is rumoured to be a future version of Microsoft's Visual C++ tool with Java-like enhancements.

Rich Gray, an antitrust attorney at Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady & Gray in California, added that the court of appeals decision doesn't free Microsoft from the threat of future injunctions. The court decision gives Whyte room to issue the injunction based on other grounds, he said. Sun officials asserted that the court's decision also gives Whyte the option of reinstating the injunctions by providing more comprehensive explanations of his reasoning.

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