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Sun, Microsoft and the standards wars

Sun's Java move is just the latest in a long sequence of twists and turns

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Sun pulled Java out of the ECMA standardisation process earlier this week, citing its concern that compatibility could otherwise suffer. But there are many subtle and not-so-subtle issues underlying the decision. Sun thinks that ECMA, the Geneva-based European Association for Standardising Information and Communication Systems (previously known as the European Computer Manufacturers Association), has been unduly influenced by Microsoft and HP, who have agendas that are quite different from that of Sun. Scott McNealy noted this week that standards bodies are highly political and are influenced by their need for money. In May, after moves in the US slowed Sun's effort to standardise Java directly through the ISO, the company turned to ECMA in the hope of getting fast-track ISO standardisation for Java, since ECMA is a liaison member of TC97 of ISO and IEC, and subsequently part of ISO/IEC JTC1. Alan Baratz, then Java Software president, noted at the time that Java had been developed through the Java Community Process, and that the Java language spec, the JVM spec, and the Java API class library would be submitted. Microsoft, funnily enough, hasn't come under anything like as much fire vis a vis standards as Sun has, despite having done everything in its power to keep Windows out of the standardisation business. But the arguments go back a long way. To get the whole story straight, we have to go back to 1992, when Apple had announced its Open Collaboration Environment. Microsoft hastily responded with the concept of a Windows Open Services Architecture (WOSA), which was described at the time by Forrester as "nothing more than a backgrounder put out by Microsoft's PR department", but it did result in "an awful lot of saluting and much less shipping" as one wag put it at the time. Novell responded with a white paper on Systems Applications Services, but it was Sun's proposal for WABI, a Windows Application Binary Interface that caught the imagination, since it provided a way to give Unix users the ability to run Windows applications in an open environment, without the need for Dos or Windows, and without emulation or any change to the Windows application. Shock horror in the Microsoft camp, with Redmond threatening litigation, claiming that Windows intellectual property rights were being violated. Apart from Sun's traditional antithesis to Microsoft, Sun advanced the WABI approach because Microsoft would not offer it any acceptable terms for licensing Windows source code, although it had licensed Insignia, Bristol and Locus. Microsoft was upset when identical 486s running the same benchmark, one with WABI and the other with Windows, showed that WABI out-performed Windows by 50 per cent. If Microsoft needed a prod to move it in the direction of 32-bit APIs, this was it. Microsoft was further embarrassed when in 1994, Sun, Novell, Microsoft and the European Commission met at Gleneagles in Scotland ostensibly to discuss the future direction of the desktop environment, but Sun made the event the launch of the Public Windows Interface (PWI) that was to be submitted to standards bodies. Nigel Burton, then Microsoft's manager of Microsoft's solutions development group admitted that Microsoft "should have done a better job" of documenting Windows, but "the idea of relinquishing ownership of the Windows API" was not open to discussion. WOSA was not open at all, it transpired. In 1994, the PWI proposal was submitted to ECMA. As can be easily imagined, Microsoft had some strong reasons to get its revenge on Sun, which brings us back to the recent events. Sun did not deliver the Java 2 Standard Edition to ECMA on 1 December because of its concern that although ECMA protected patents in submissions, it did not provide protection for copyright or other intellectual property rights. Sun did not wish to encourage Microsoft's amorous embrace-and-extend moves, so decided to withdraw. It is still possible, but unlikely, for ECMA to continue Java standardisation. Sun remains a member of ECMA, and has been very active, proposing not just the API for Windows, but also ECMA Script and ECMA Object Data Interfaces. Pat Sueltz, who has managed Sun's Java operation for the last two months and previously did the same job at IBM, said at the Java Business Conference earlier this week that: "We are steadfast about controlling the compatibility, but not about controlling the technology, not about stopping innovation. We just want to make sure that we continue to drive the process of compatibility from the largest server to the smallest embedded device". McNealy said that "There are times when we need flexibility. We're not moving Java forward in a secret way, in a non-participatory way." The irony of the whole situation is that Sun is still losing money on Java, which could account for it being perceived as being a bit slow on the Java front at times. However, two significant announcements were made this week - the final preview version of the Linux version of Java 2 Standard Edition, co-developed with Inprise (Borland), is now available for download. In addition, Fujitsu is supporting Java 2 Enterprise Edition on its Interstage Application Server, and has obtained the first CORBA approval through X/Open. It would be good for Sun to beef up its Java Community Process so that the stakeholders in Java - including Microsoft of course - are happy about progress and collectively prevent its fragmentation. Meanwhile, Sun and Microsoft have to meet again in their ongoing litigation over Microsoft's effort to subvert Java. Microsoft's new release of IE (5.5) includes Java. ®

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