Sun Confers with Licensees over Control of Java

SAN FRANCISCO (03/02/2000) - Sun Microsystems Inc. today continued delicate talks with some of its largest Java licensees, as the company struggles to define a viable development process for the evolving technology. The efforts come after Sun was hit with a scathing rebuke from a European standards body that had once been pegged by Sun to manage the process.

Sun has drafted a proposal for a new development process, called JCP (Java Community Process) 2.0, that it said gives licensees more control over the way new standards will be set for Java. Among the changes, Sun is considering relinquishing its veto option over certain "control points" in the development process, including decisions about which new technical specifications will be considered for the platform, a Sun spokeswoman said.

Key Java licensees including BEA Systems Inc., Oracle Corp., Novell Inc., IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. were presented with a draft of the new proposal at a meeting with Sun yesterday. Discussions with representatives of some of those firms continued by telephone all day today, the spokeswoman said.

"Our goal is to settle this as quickly as possible," the spokeswoman said, although she said no timetable for the talks has been set.

At issue is a need to for Sun to reduce concern among some of its most important licensing partners -- most notably HP and IBM -- about how new specifications for Java will be set as the technology evolves, analysts said.

Sun wants to retain sufficient control over Java to ensure compatibility across all vendors' products, and to allow it to shape the technology in accordance with its vision, said Mark Driver, research director with Gartner Group Inc. A few of Sun's Java licensees, most notably IBM, are demanding a more democratic process, one that guarantees that Sun can't co-opt Java at some time in the future by adding features that best suit its own products and strategy.

"Sun has taken the benevolent dictator approach, where you have to believe Sun won't proprietize Java in the future. (IBM) wants to see a formal process that gives them legal recourse to prevent Sun from doing that," Driver said.

JCP 2.0 is Sun's attempt to resolve that conflict.

"What we've been doing with JCP 2.0 is trying to (strike) a balance -- to ensure that compatibility is maintained, that the technology evolves quickly, and that the process is as open as possible," the Sun spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, as the talks with licensees got under way yesterday, Sun was sharply criticized by a Geneva-based standards group called the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). Sun had made overtures that it would turn control of the Java development process over to ECMA, but started to back away from that move late last year. [See "Sun Makes Moves to Quell Unrest Over Java," Jan. 21.] Sun informed ECMA in a letter last week that its relationship was effectively over.

"In the last year, the Java Community Process (JCP) has expanded its level of activity to a point where we now believe the interests of the entire Java Community will be best met by continuing to evolve the Java specifications with the open JCP process," George Paolini, Sun vice president, Java Community Development Software Products & Platforms, wrote in a letter to ECMA's president.

Sun wasn't convinced that ECMA had clearly defined a process that would protect the compatibility of Java or Sun's copyrights, the Sun spokeswoman said today.

"Frankly, they scared us," she said.

ECMA responded by chastising Sun for causing an "enormous waste of experts' time and companies' money." In an interview today, a top ECMA official said Sun's criticisms of the group are merely a smokescreen for its real motives for ending the relationship.

"They just don't want to give up control" of Java, said Jan van den Beld, secretary-general of ECMA. "It is 100 percent my opinion that Sun is publicly saying they want to make Java a standard, but privately not making it happen."

At least one analyst agreed that Sun isn't ready yet to turn Java over to an independent standards body.

"Sun would only submit Java to a standards body on their own terms," Gartner Group's Driver said. "They don't believe that Java is stable enough, or that it has achieved sufficient critical mass, that they can relinquish control."

Other analysts said Sun's decision to keep the development of Java within its JCP effort may signal a change in philosophy at the top of Sun's Java division, where longtime Java chief Alan Baratz stepped down last August. Ironically, Sun's Java efforts are now steered by Pat Seultz, who previously led IBM's Java team, noted Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group Inc.

Analysts said any new development process that is agreed to will have to strike a delicate balance between the amount of control Sun retains over Java and the degree of openness it is prepared to offer the Java community.

"Revising the JCP and bringing in these top licensees seems a prudent thing to do," Gardner said. "The question is how much pressure some of these major partners are going to be able to exert on Sun."

Sun, in Palo Alto, California, can be reached at +1-650-960-1300 or at http://www.sun.com/. ECMA can be contacted at +41-22-849-6000, or at http://www.ecma.ch/.

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