Microsoft is finally getting out of the Java business. And that's good news. Really. For Microsoft, for Sun Micro- systems and most of all for corporate IT shops.
According to Micro- soft's product road maps, its Visual J++ development tool isn't being upgraded with new versions of Java. And around the time the next major version of Visual J++ is due out - best guess now is northern spring of next year - Microsoft's lawsuit-plagued Java licence from Sun will expire.
Now understand, no one confirms that Microsoft is phasing out Java. Officially, Microsoft managers say they can't talk about it because of Sun's long-running lawsuit against Microsoft. In practice, Microsoft managers used to spout off about the lawsuit and their Java plans at any opportunity.
But reports from Microsoft's VBITS conference recently make it clear that Visual Basic, Visual C++ and other tools will be aggressively beefed up over the next year to meet the needs of e-commerce developers. And Microsoft's version of Java won't.
Maybe that sounds like bad news for Java - Microsoft bailing on a highly-touted technology.
But in fact it's good news. Why? Because the needle match between Microsoft and Sun over Java has wasted more than enough IT shop time and dollars in efforts to deal with incompatibilities between the two versions. Microsoft and Sun may have money to burn - but we don't.
It's good news because it simplifies developers' choices. For all-Microsoft-all-the-time shops, Microsoft's proprietary tools - Visual Basic, Visual C++ and yet-to-come XML tools like BizTalk - are now clearly the way to go.
For the rest of the world, where desktops and servers from multiple vendors are a fact of life, Java is one - though not the only - tool to use for cross-platform applications.
It's good news because desktop PC management will be simplified by getting Java out of Internet Explorer, into which it is now built. Want Java? Install it as a Web browser plug-in, just like Real Audio or Shockwave. Don't want it? Don't install it.
Like the version you've got, but you're worried about the next release's compatibility or security? Don't upgrade. No more guesswork - you'll know what you get.
It's good news for Microsoft, which gets out of a no-win situation. Microsoft wanted to make Java its own.
That didn't work out, thanks to Sun's lawsuit. The judge has already tentatively ruled that Micro- soft violated Sun's Java copyrights. In January he reinstated an order forcing Microsoft to follow Sun's Java specifications.
That's the kind of straitjacket Microsoft - especially its newly minted Chief Software Architect Bill Gates - just hates.
And it's good news for Sun, which gets rid of its most unfriendly, sabotage-prone Java licensee. Sun has trouble enough keeping signals straight with its friends. It's well rid of Microsoft.
Good news all around, right? Of course, if everybody wins, that usually means everybody loses something, too.
IT shop developers lose Microsoft's Java programming tools. There are plenty of alternatives - from IBM, Borland, Metro- werks, Symantec and others - but Microsoft does know how to make a development environment.
Microsoft loses leverage. "Cross-platform" is no longer just a buzzword for its corporate customers - it's a law of nature.
Linux, Unix, handhelds and the resurgent Macintosh are eating away at Microsoft's Windows base on both the front and back ends. Losing one more competitive feature could be expensive in the long run. But for Microsoft, keeping Java is expensive now.
And Sun? Sun loses its biggest excuse for Java's shortcomings.
Pretty soon, if Java doesn't do it right - well, there won't be Microsoft to blame.
Hayes, Computerworld's US columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years.