Victory for Sun may not Be a win for Java

In the drama that is the legal battle between Sun Microsystems and Microsoft over Java licensing issues, Microsoft clearly is cast as the villain. But some warn that a victory for Sun isn't necessarily good for Java. 'If Sun wins, it may be a net loss for Java development overall,' says one analyst.

In the drama that is the legal battle between Sun Microsystems and Microsoft over Java licensing issues, Microsoft clearly is cast as the villain.

But some warn that a victory for Sun isn't necessarily good for Java. "If Sun wins, it may be a net loss for Java development overall,'' says Ron Rappaport, an analyst for Zona Research.

Sun claimed in a lawsuit filed last October that Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0 browser failed its Java compatibility tests, thus violating the Java trademark and licensing agreements that all Java licensees are required to sign.

The first courtroom skirmish came Feb. 27, when a US District Court here heard a request from Sun that would force Microsoft to remove the "Java compatible'' logo from Internet Explorer 4.0. No ruling has been made.

If Microsoft prevails in court, many developers fear it will continue to develop its own brand of Java, destroying the write-once, run-anywhere promise of the programming language introduced by Sun three years ago.

Indeed, Microsoft this week announced a revised version of its Java tools for Windows-based computers that goes far beyond the changes it made to Java in Internet Explorer 4.0.

Rappaport, however, said a legal triumph by Sun over Microsoft could inhibit development efforts by other Java licensees.

"A company like IBM that wants to improve Java's performance on IBM architectures won't be able to touch it if some legal precedent is set,'' he said.

One Novell executive recently expressed similar concerns. "You know, I have NetWare to worry about, and I have issues with NetWare I have to tweak and turn, so I can't have Sun telling me, 'No, you can't do that,''' said Chris Stone, Novell vice president of strategy and corporate partnerships.

Stone said many other Java licensees already are tinkering with their own Java Virtual Machines needed to run Java applications.

"Everybody is playing with it. It's slow,'' he said.

So does this mean other Java licensees experimenting under Java's hood are tempting a court date with Sun?

Not at all, Sun said. "We encourage all of our licensees to make improvements on top of the Java platform,'' said a spokesperson for Sun's JavaSoft division. "There is a well-defined infrastructure in place for doing so.''

What licensees can't do is "unilaterally make changes within the Java API and deliver them into the marketplace as Microsoft has done,'' the spokesperson said.

A spokesman for the largest Java licensee said he had no concerns about being hamstrung by Sun. "Provided we are compatible in terms of meeting the requirements and specifications of the compatibility tests, how we implement in terms of performance is entirely our responsibility,'' said David Gee, program director for IBM's alphaWorks Web site.

There's another reason IBM needn't worry about flunking Java compatibility tests.

"We helped write most of the tests,'' Gee said.

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