Sun joins litigant lineup

It was just going to be a matter of time before Sun chimed in with a suit against Microsoft for anticompetitive behaviour.

It was just going to be a matter of time before Sun chimed in with a suit against Microsoft for anticompetitive behaviour. It did so 10 days ago, accusing its longtime rival of harming competition by using its monopoly in the PC operating systems market to undermine the success of Java.

The Sun suit comes on top of one filed in January by one-time browser market leader Netscape (now owned by AOL), which also alleges harm done to its business by Windows-related anticompetitive practices. No one should be surprised that Sun and Netscape (and comparatively unknown operating system maker Be) are seeking their day in court since the 2000 ruling that declared Microsoft an OS market monopolist. And as the Department of Justice case which led to that ruling looks to be coming to a tame close, there will be a certain amount of satisfaction that private litigation is going ahead. Might Apple not also want to join in? Perhaps not, since Microsoft owns part of it these days.

Of all Microsoft’s foes, Sun must rank as the most fierce. The money it will spend on this case isn’t the first it’s sunk into trying to prove Microsoft’s illegal behaviour. Sun reportedly funded a $US3m initiative which paid dozens of lawyers and antitrust experts to help persuade the DoJ to take Microsoft to court in the first place. Having helped secure that conviction, Sun’s now seeking an unconfirmed $US1 billion through its private action.

The Sun suit is wide-ranging. It accuses Microsoft of distributing a version of Java that is not compatible with Sun's and asks the court to order Microsoft to stop making its JVM (Java virtual machine) download available and instead distribute a current version using Sun's technology with Windows XP and Internet Explorer. It also wants a permanent injunction that would require Microsoft to license its proprietary software interfaces to other companies and to "unbundle" products such as Internet Explorer, its IIS (Internet Information Server) web server and the .Net framework from its operating systems.

Sun reckons that Microsoft's intention is to dominate access to the internet to the point where users would have to use a Microsoft product every time they connect to the web.

Microsoft’s response is to say “it’s time to move past these issues”, many of which it says were settled in a lawsuit last year (which cost it $US20 million in a settlement paid to Sun). Microsoft argues that litigation serves only to harm developers, because it distracts the industry from focusing on innovation and “developing great products”.

Whether developers agree with that argument depends on whether they’ve already been won over to the Microsoft camp. Those who have, say there are indeed effects from litigation. For example, the flow of free stuff from Microsoft, which is such a powerful inducement for developers to align themselves with it, dries up. That’s because the courts see that as a means by which Microsoft can unfairly spread its influence.

Developers who aren’t in the Microsoft camp, however, answer back that if litigation stifles innovation, then Microsoft is merely getting a taste of what its rivals suffer through the Redmond giant’s anticompetitive behaviour. They support legal action that opens up the market to alternatives such as Linux, and point out to end users the danger of exclusively using a set of interlinked technologies – Microsoft Outlook, Exchange and Internet Information Server, for example -- which can be brought down by a single attack.

A third group of developers, those who don’t exclusively develop for Microsoft’s or anyone else’s platforms, suggest that given half a chance, Sun would itself like to monopolise the market. Certainly, Sun boss Scott McNealy’s vision of computing’s future is centred on Java-based web services and Sun hardware, just as Microsoft paints a picture of a world reliant on .Net-based services. The difference is that Microsoft already owns the desktop.

You might imagine with private litigants lining up and the DoJ case not yet settled, Microsoft would be trying to sound a little repentant about its past sins. Not so. Craig Mundie, the company’s technology chief and one of Bill Gates’ inner circle, told Computerworld this month that “we’re a business and in some sense we do what the marketplace pays us to do”. The company had been “quite well rewarded by the customers for the balance that we chose”, Mundie modestly went on.

The argument continues to be about how that business was conducted.

Doesburg is Computerworld editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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