Sun vs Microsoft: sabotage is your friend

Posted Mar 30 17:19 GMT

Let us now praise sabotage.

No, I'm not kidding. At last week's JavaOne conference in San Francisco, users got a firsthand look at the benefits of sabotage in the war over Java between Sun Microsystems and Microsoft.

I'm not talking about the Microsoft employees scrawling pro-Microsoft graffiti in chalk on the sidewalks outside the Sun conference hall. Or Microsoft manager Charles Fitzgerald inside buttonholing anyone he could to snarl about Sun.

Or Sun employees reenacting last month's pie in the face for Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and blithely telling reporters, "We can't trust Microsoft to do anything."

Those stupid stunts and blatant bad-mouthing are petty stuff - amusing, in fact. But in the all-out, full-bore battle over Java, real, deadly serious sabotage has become the order of the day.

Consider the following:

-- Sun launches Java and gains support by billing it as a way to torpedo Windows, Microsoft's cash cow.

-- Microsoft licenses Java, then sabotages Java's cross-platform capabilities in its Internet Explorer Java implementation.

-- Sun retaliates by developing an add-on component that sabotages Microsoft's version of Java, replacing it in Internet Explorer with Sun's version.

And on it goes. This isn't a clean, wholesome contest. It's the ugly face of competition run amok - down-and-dirty sabotage. These guys are actively undermining each other's products.

And guess what? Customers, especially corporate IS customers, are revelling in this orgy of back-stabbing. Why? Because it's giving them more choices, more cooperation and better product quality than they would ever get without this Machiavellian marketplace.

On Microsoft's side, that means a new version of its Visual J++ development tool, one that makes no pretense about supporting non-Windows applications. So users who want to just build Windows software with Java get better integration and performance.

On Sun's side (the same Sun that once planned to dictate Java's fate with an iron fist), that means a version of Java written as an ActiveX component. And another version that runs on top of plain-vanilla DOS instead of Windows 95 or NT. And a wider range of tools delivered faster than Sun has ever mustered for its Solaris. Think that would have happened if Sun were merely playing a polite game of product Ping-Pong with Microsoft?

The cutthroat competition also has forced Sun to make nice with many of its erstwhile opponents. Last week, Sun struck a deal with Intel, which had squabbled with Sun for two years over Java's floating-point specifications. Sun also had to mollify IBM, once the target of Sun honcho Scott McNealy's most bitter barbs, and charm rival database vendors Oracle and Informix, and rival tool vendors Borland and Symantec.

Instead of dictating terms, McNealy, who once bragged that he doesn't fight fires, but sets them, must actually listen to his partners. And Sun can't juggle them all successfully - witness Hewlett-Packard's recent defection to the Microsoft camp.

To counter Microsoft's immense market leverage, Sun had to make its new Java database tools work with any database vendor's product, including Microsoft's. And that ActiveX version of Java had to be absolutely standard ActiveX, so Microsoft couldn't sabotage it.

All this is a bonanza for corporate IS shops that want to get the most from Java. They're in the driver's seat. No one else can dictate products and technologies and vendors. But that user nirvana wouldn't have been possible without the unrestrained, both-barrels-in-your-face combat between Sun and Microsoft. The benefits simply wouldn't have happened on their own.

(Hayes is US Computerworld's staff columnist. His Internet address is frank_hayes@cw.com)

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Frank Hayes

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