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Sun Suit Sheds Light on Microsoft's Tactics


"Subversion has always been our best tactic . . . subversion is almost invariably a better tactic than a frontal assault . . . it leaves the competition confused, they don't know what to shoot at anymore . . . "

--John Ludwig, Microsoft vice president in charge of Java development


It was 4:45 a.m. on March 12, 1997. Following a grueling 18-hour negotiating session, the two bitter rivals had finally signed an agreement. Sun Microsystems would license its innovative Java technology to Microsoft. In exchange, Microsoft would use its massive market presence to help distribute the technology.

The deal was hailed as a major victory for Java. Overnight, the technology would become available on millions of desktops.

But within Sun, a lot of executives were skeptical.

"The planet is littered with companies that did deals with Microsoft expecting to win big but ended up getting screwed," warned James Gosling, a Sun vice president and one of the original developers of Java, in an e-mail to Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy.

Gosling, along with everyone else in the computer business, was well aware of the story of how Microsoft Chief Executive Bill Gates, a college dropout, had almost single-handedly out-negotiated a team of IBM lawyers to retain full rights to the PC software that set the standards for an industry.

Gosling's warnings proved prescient. Within months the two companies were at loggerheads. Today Sun is engaged in a fierce lawsuit against Microsoft for allegedly violating its contract. And Microsoft's alleged campaign to undercut Sun's Java has become a featured component of the Justice Department's antitrust case.

A decision by U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte on Sun's request for an injunction barring Microsoft from shipping its version of Java is expected as early as this week, with a trial to follow in the coming months. Microsoft insists it has done nothing illegal with respect to Java, and many legal experts are inclined to agree. But the documents Sun has received from Microsoft as part of the suit, many of which are only now being unsealed, provide rare insight into the bare-knuckled, shrewd and sometimes duplicitous tactics Microsoft deploys to defend and extend its Windows monopoly.

Although Java had been around for years, it wasn't until 1995 that Sun began to position the programming language as the solution to software developers' biggest headache: the need to rewrite their computer code for each of the computer systems in widespread use. According to Sun's approach, each computer system would have a layer of software on it called a Java Virtual Machine that would allow it to run applications written in Java.

In public, Microsoft pooh-poohed the technology, but in private, Microsoft was quick to recognize Java as a threat.

"This hiding of the Microsoft [Windows] franchise is certainly not good for Microsoft," argued a November 1995 Microsoft white paper.

Although Microsoft announced in December that it would support Java as part of its broader embrace of Internet standards, behind the scenes, according to a February 1996 memo by Microsoft executive Paul Maritz, the company was already taking steps to "neutralize Java."

Sun's first huge mistake was to underestimate Microsoft. Sun assumed Microsoft would merely exploit Sun's Java code, and its legal agreement was designed to protect that code. Instead, taking advantage of its huge army of programmers, Microsoft wrote its own Java Virtual Machine from scratch. When Microsoft showed the program to Sun in May 1996, just two months after the agreement had been signed, Sun executives found it "scary" how much effort Microsoft was putting into Java.

Sun executives began to question the contract they had signed with Microsoft.

"Microsoft was smarter than us when we did the contract," David Spenhoff, director of product marketing at Sun's software arm, wrote in an e-mail. Spenhoff worried the contract limited Sun's ability to make Microsoft adopt new additions to its Java standard.

Stopping Java a Top Priority

To build up its defenses, Sun, working closely with IBM and Netscape Communications, announced plans in May to develop Java Beans, a tool for developing Java-based applications that directly challenged Microsoft's own approach to writing software. Microsoft, which wasn't told about the announcement until the day before, was furious.

Sun launched another salvo aimed at Microsoft later in the year with a "100% pure Java" program designed to pressure Microsoft into following Sun's lead.

As Java gathered industry support throughout 1996, Gates wrote e-mail in September expressing his concerns. "This scares the hell out of me," Gates wrote, calling on Microsoft to make it a top priority to stop Java.

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