Microsoft and Sun: The morning after

The saga of sniping and legal wrangling between Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. is finally over. But is it feel-good posturing or a harbinger of joint development?

"The ink is hardly dry," Sun CTO of Software John Fowler told InfoWorld. "We have ideas about what working together on interoperability might mean," but specifics have not yet been hashed out. Microsoft has been even less forthcoming, saying it is too early to "speculate" on specifics.

George Paolini offers insight as vice president and general manager of developer tools at Borland and as a former Sun executive. "I don't think this is a superficial announcement," he said. "There's a genuine intent to try to work together."

Yet Paolini dismissed the notion that there will be any real compatibility between Java and .Net at the application layer. "Right now, there isn't any way to do that because the libraries aren't compatible," he said. Instead Paolini believes the companies are working on finding common ground at the data level, via XML.

Past agreements between Sun and Microsoft on XML and Web services specs have been fleeting at best. One veteran of standards battles, Iona CTO Eric Newcomer, believes that interoperability between Microsoft and Java platforms "has to be viewed entirely in the context of Web services."

After watching the two companies clash over standards, "we're very hopeful that we can use the opportunity to bring Sun and Microsoft closer to agreement in working on specifications again," Newcomer said.

Yet two fundamentally different views of standards must be reconciled. The bone of contention is that Microsoft reserves the right to license specifications. "I'm against that," Sun's Fowler said. "Standards that have restrictions end up failing."

But Sun's weak position may leave it few options, according to Iona's Newcomer and Greg DeMichillie, senior analyst at Directions on Microsoft Inc.

"If there are going to be concessions made on standards, Sun will have to make them," DeMichillie said.

Sun's big opportunity, ironically, "is to compete with Microsoft's server offerings as the backbone to manage Windows desktops," DeMichellie said.

Sun doubtlessly has loftier plans. DeMichillie sees Sun in the midst of a painful transition into a software company, using a cash infusion from Microsoft to help make it happen. That US$2 billion handshake might be viewed as a sellout or as a sad inevitability for Sun.

"Now we're saying, 'We can work broadly with Microsoft on interoperability. What's your biggest problem?' " Fowler said.

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