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THE CUTTING EDGE

Java a More Potent Brew in Wake of Ruling

News analysis: Sun fends off Microsoft's intervention in the software's direction, boosting its potential as an alternative to Windows.

November 23, 1998|LESLIE HELM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — A court decision last week ordering Microsoft Corp. to make its version of Java software compatible with Sun Microsystems' design of the technology has breathed new life into efforts to build a Java alternative to Microsoft's Windows, say analysts and industry experts.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte's decision granting Sun a preliminary injunction in its lawsuit against Microsoft reinforces Sun's rights to control the direction of Java technology, experts said.

It also virtually assures that Java--a fast-proliferating programming language for developing applications that run on computer networks--will remain a standard.

Sun, a leading computer server and workstation maker based in Palo Alto, has accused the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant of unfair business practices and violating the terms of their licensing agreement for Java.

"Sun is clearly in control, and there is a clear specification" for Java, said Eric Brown, senior analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. "There is now another benevolent dictator on the block, and it is Sun."

Under the San Jose court order, Microsoft has 90 days in which to make changes so its "Java virtual machine" can run software designed for other Java virtual machines. That layer of software, sometimes called the "universal adapter," allows a computer system to run programs written in the Java language.

Large companies that use IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other computer systems have increasingly turned to Java to make their equipment work together, and there has been growing concern about Microsoft's well-documented effort to break the Java standard.

"The ability to develop software once and run it [on any computer] is crucial. I don't want to be tied to anybody," said John Lavkulich of the Ohio Department of Transportation, who is using Java to write programs to run on the agency's disparate computer systems.

The incompatibilities Microsoft introduced "made it difficult to develop for Java," said Brian Maso, author of several technical books on Java. "It was a big land mine out there."

Del Yocam, chief executive of Scotts Valley, Calif.-based Inprise, which makes software to help programmers write Java code, believes the court case has cleared much of the confusion about Java. "Companies are moving to Java, and they want it [to be] cross-platform," allowing the programs to work equally well on systems based on Microsoft Windows, Apple's Mac OS and Unix. Yocam offered to license his firm's "pure Java" technology to Microsoft.

With Sun Microsystems in firm control of the standard and new, more reliable and stable Java technology coming out, said Yocam, "there will be an explosion [of Java use] in 1999."

But Tracy Corbo, senior analyst at Cahner's In Stat Group, a market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz., warns that the court decision could prove a double-edged sword.

"This is forcing Microsoft's hand," Corbo said. "What if they stripped out all the Java from their products?"

Since Microsoft operating systems manage more than 90% of the world's desktop computers, a decision to drop Java could substantially undermine its prospects for widespread acceptance.

Microsoft has said it could also choose to develop a Java clone that doesn't use Sun technology and therefore doesn't have to be compatible with Sun's Java.

Users of Microsoft's version of Java already worry that if the court makes a final ruling in Sun's favor, they could be left in the lurch.

"We just spent eight months developing software that just went into [testing]," said Zor Gorelov, chief executive at IntraActive Software, a maker of Java-based software based in New York City.

Since the company exploited Microsoft's Windows-only functions, if the judge determines that the functions are illegal, as he signaled he might, "we might have to redesign the product," Gorelov said.

Microsoft insists it will continue to support its version of Java for customers who want to use Java to develop Windows-only applications.

"Sun's agenda is to [have Java] be the one platform all people write to," said Tom Button, director of marketing for developer tools at Microsoft. "No one company should be in that position."

It is only a matter of time, Button added, until programmers realize the advantages of writing for a specific system rather than for the "lowest common denominator" of Java.

But IBM used a similar argument in the 1980s when it advised its customers to not trade the rich features of mainframe computers for the less sophisticated but lower-priced and more flexible personal computer.

Microsoft won that battle because it offered customers more choice. This time, Microsoft could find itself on the other side of the divide.

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Times staff writer Leslie Helm can be reached via e-mail at leslie.helm@latimes.com.

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