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DEC. 2, 1998 7pm ET
Microsoft Puts Java on Trial
The Redmond giant says it tinkered with Java because Sun's version was so faulty

The Java war has rolled into Washington. Even though Microsoft Corp. got its wrist slapped in a California court in November over the way it handles the Java programming technology, it's showing no signs of easing its campaign against Sun in the courtroom. The software giant came out swinging on Wednesday, Dec. 2 when Sun Microsystems Chief Scientist James Gosling -- the creator of Java -- took the stand as a government witness. Its tactic: To put Java itself on trial. "Java just doesn't deliver," says Charles Fitzgerald, a group product manager who is Microsoft's point man on the technology. "The government is saying Microsoft destroyed the Java dream. But we didn't. The dream failed on its own."

The notion that Java is a flop is not widely accepted in the computer industry, where the technology continues to create lots of buzz. Nevertheless, Microsoft has tried to discredit Sun's Java products at every turn in the three years since Java was announced -- even after it licensed Java from Sun in 1996. When Java was about to become Exhibit B (Netscape being Exhibit A) in the government's case, Microsoft held a special briefing for reporters near the Washington, D.C., courthouse on Dec. 1 to enumerate Java's shortcomings.

The company's demeanor was no different inside the courtroom. Gosling, a Sun vice-president, faced off against Microsoft Associate General Counsel Thomas Burt, who doggedly attacked Gosling's 35-page direct testimony. The key issue -- and the subject of civil litigation between the companies -- is whether Microsoft could make changes to the Sun progamming language. Sun has designed Java so that it can be used to create programs that run on any system that runs a "Java virtual machine" -- software that allows programs written in Java to run on top of a computer operating system. But that works only if all versions of Java are the same.

Gosling has accused Microsoft of trying to subvert Java by customizing it to head it off as a threat to the Windows operating system. But Burt insisted that Microsoft played fair with Java, offering developers a choice of programming software for any operating system or solely for Windows.

"CHARGE!" Burt scored points by getting Gosling to admit that there are some negatives to trying to use "pure" Java to write programs that will run on any computer. Those programs often run more slowly than they would if created specifically for one operating system -- and sometimes there are incompatibilities. "It's not a finished product," conceded Gosling.

Burt also painted a picture of Sun as a company bent on taking advantage of Java to knock off Microsoft and chipmaker Intel Corp. as the reigning kings of the computer industry. Gosling denied knowing of such plans. But Burt offered up an E-mail that Sun CEO Scott McNealy wrote after he saw an early Java demonstration. "Charge! Kill Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Apple all at once," McNealy wrote.

Burt also displayed numerous memos from Sun executives that mapped out an ambitious strategy of first offering the Java language to programmers and then, once they adopted it, selling them specialized microprocessors and operating systems based on Java. Microsoft spokesman Mark Murray said later that this showed there is vigorous competition in the computer industry -- and no need for the government to restrain Microsoft. "Sun wanted to leverage Java to dominate all of computing -- chips, software, and the Internet," Murray said.

Whether or not Microsoft can knock down the government's allegations about its treatment of Java is crucial -- both to its defense and to Microsoft critics who believe the technology is the best hope for overcoming Microsoft's dominance of the computer industry. Java poses a mortal threat to Microsoft because it promises software developers the opportunity to write their programs once to run on any computer -- potentially rendering Microsoft's Windows operating system irrelevant. The company's critics say it's too late to do anything about Microsoft's efforts to neutralize competition in the browser market. But they believe a win by the Justice Dept. -- and tough court-imposed remedies -- could give Java a better chance to flourish.

MARKETPLACE BRAWL. The court showdown over Java comes at a time when both Microsoft and Sun are escalating their competition in the marketplace, too. On Dec. 8, Sun is expected to introduce the latest official version of its Java virtual machine. It says the new version offers breakthrough improvements in performance and in its usefulness for creating desktop applications. For the first time, for instance, computer users will be able to print documents in a uniform way from Java programs.

Meanwhile, Microsoft will try to take some of the wind from Sun's sails by announcing an upgrade of its own Java virtual machine. Microsoft's software will include modifications ordered by a California judge as part of a preliminary injunction in Sun's contract-violation lawsuit. But Microsoft claims the software will also deliver improvements that will keep it several steps ahead of Sun's Java.

Even Sun acknowledges that Java still has a way to go to offer programmers a platform for writing applications as stable and useful as Microsoft's Windows. Pilot programs operated slowly and didn't function well when running on a variety of computers. Corel Corp. and Oracle Corp. both dropped their bids to create desktop productivity suites written in Java. "It was expected to cure cancer in six months. But that was unrealistic," says Lisa Poulson a group manager for corporate affairs at Sun. "Now, it's just a question of how long it will take to be robust enough to be ubiquitous."

Java is certainly on a healthy trajectory -- even after some recalibrating of expectations. Sun estimates that roughly 900,000 programmers use Java regularly. Corporations like Key Corp. and Federal Express are rolling out major Java-based applications. And German software giant SAP has told analysts that it will soon include support for Java in its enormously popular finance and manufacturing applications.

Even Microsoft can't stand by the wayside and watch Java pass by. Indeed, it's now the leader in selling tools for writing programs in Java. And it brags that its Java virtual machine runs Java-based applications better even than Sun's version -- a claim backed up by technical reviewers like PC Magazine. Microsoft insists that it has been wrongly accused of trying to subvert Java. "The government wants to say Microsoft can't offer this additional choice, and that's perverse," says Charles Rule, a Microsoft legal consultant.

The company will get to make that argument in full when Microsoft presents its defense, which now looks now like it won't start until early next year.

By Steve Hamm in Washington, D.C.


Previous BW coverage of the trial

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