The long and bitter relationship between Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. entered a new chapter Friday when the two companies announced a $1.6 billion settlement of Suns antitrust and patent issues with its chief rival.
The agreement contemplates the two companies cooperating on a wide range of projects, and it also could help thaw the chilly relationship between Microsoft and the folks at Sun and other companies who have been working on the Liberty Alliance Project and other efforts related to federated identity.
In the still-evolving world of online identity management, Microsoft was first off the line several years ago with its Passport service, which is used almost exclusively by consumers signing into Microsoft-owned sites such as Hotmail and MSN or affiliated sites.
Designed to serve as a single sign-on solution for the Web, Passport allows users to enter their credentials once and log in to any number of affiliated sites.
But the service never really caught on the way Microsoft officials had hoped, and it has been beset by legal troubles related to privacy and security concerns.
Then along came the Liberty Alliance, a consortium of technology vendors and large companies from other industries that produced an open specification for federating online identity. Led by Sun, Liberty has banged the drum loudly for openness, often taking not-so-subtle shots at Passport and Microsoft. But the group also has worked from the outset to support a variety of other standards, including SAML, SOAP and WS-Security, which Microsoft has been slow to integrate.
But the tension between the two sides has begun to lessen, as seen at an event at Microsofts headquarters in Redmond, Wash., this week in which several Liberty members were asked to demonstrate interoperability with a language known as Web Services Federation. The language was developed jointly by Microsoft, IBM, RSA Security Inc., VeriSign Inc. and BEA Systems Inc.
Now, with the Sun issues moving to the background, Liberty members are hopeful that the two sides can find even more common ground.
"I think convergence is incredibly hard, but Liberty and SAML are out there, and these are real federated standards," said Amit Jasuja, vice president of product management at Netegrity Inc., based in Waltham, Mass., and a Liberty member. "Microsoft realizes they need to play in the federated space, too. This is a huge step between the two companies."
Jasuja said he believes the settlement also signals that both Sun, based in Santa Clara, Calif., and Microsoft are in a conciliatory mood.
"Microsoft is a very different animal now. Theyve been humbled [by the European Union fine]. It behooves them to start being good citizens," he said. "And Sun is waking up and realizing that theyre the ones who are losing, because all of their stuff besides Java is a headache."
Microsoft is working on a major overhaul of its identity infrastructure for its next release of Windows, code-named Longhorn. But thats at least two years down the road. In the interim, company officials say theyre eager to work with Sun and its allies on improving the identity experience for their customers.
"Identity is a project for us to work on together, and it will get a lot of the early focus from us," said Hank Vigil, corporate vice president for strategies and partnerships at Microsoft. "The litigation overhang was clearly a blocker. Now, we have a project we can go forward with, and I think one of the things that the settlement did is show that Microsoft and Sun might have more of an aligned agenda than people would have thought. We need to have a conversation with them as to how we can help their identity efforts."