Sun, Microsoft Filling in Details

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2004-04-09

Sun, Microsoft Filling in Details

Sun Microsystems Inc. and Microsoft Corp. may have agreed to bury the hatchet and work more closely together, but real interoperability between their respective products may be quite a ways off.

In announcing two weeks ago a deal that calls, among other things, for Microsoft to pay Sun nearly $2 billion and that settles their longstanding legal dispute, Sun Chairman and CEO Scott McNealy and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said customer demand led the companies to the agreement—that along with the growing threat of Linux and IBM to both companies. But so far there is little more than speculation on how exactly product interoperability will proceed between the two longtime and bitter rivals.

"To be blunt, thats the part of the agreement thats brand-new. The ink is not dry yet," said John Fowler, Suns chief technology officer for software and technical adviser to the companys negotiating team.

Executives on both sides insist that with legal obstacles out of the way, Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., and Sun, of Santa Clara, Calif., are now cleared to work together. In an interview with eWEEK editors last week in the wake of the $1.6 billion settlement, Microsofts Ballmer said, "The importance of interoperability is clear from talking to a lot of customers. Without an appropriate intellectual licensing framework, that cant happen. We want to get paid for the work we do. Im not going to give licenses not to have that work. Nor is Sun, frankly."

One such disgruntled customer of both Sun and Microsoft that pushed for more cooperation between the two is General Motors Corp.

"Probably the worst thing for a company like GM is to have multiple incompatible standards in a given space," said Tony Scott, chief technology officer at GM, in Detroit. "And especially if any of them get critical mass, we end up supporting them in GM. If there are two standards, somebodys going to find a compelling reason to use both."

Others agreed.

"Certainly, I can only see this agreement as helpful to our products and customers," said Rick Preston, manager of Unix systems at Rosetta Biosoftware, in Kirkland, Wash. "Interoperability—the lack of—has spawned many companies and pays developers salaries in some cases. Lets wait to see if this is just more election-year rhetoric."

While Sun executives are busy thinking about where cooperation translates into software, much work needs to be done. Fowler said Sun is currently polling customers to determine what they would like to see come out of the deal. "Were asking [them], What are your biggest priorities?" he said.

In addition, over the next couple of weeks, each company will appoint an executive contact and a program manager to work on interoperability issues with each other. "Once thats done, theyll begin to identify projects we should work on," Fowler said.

Initial areas of cooperation, Fowler said, will include communications and Web services. "We are certainly going to approach Microsoft about collaborating on some standards," possibly in the Web services and security spaces, Fowler said. "People want to be able to write Java apps that interact with [Microsoft] .Net servers."

Next page: "Coopetition."

Page Two

The companies are considering merging Microsofts Passport and the Sun-backed Liberty Alliance identity management methods, Fowler said. "But this is less about what we would do and more about the idea of ceasing hostilities and exploring options," he said. "We just dont know yet. What weve signed is a broad agreement. We have this great opportunity here to make our products work well with Microsofts."

Still, during the settlement announcement, Fowler, along with McNealy and Ballmer, insisted that the companies will continue to compete vigorously. "Fundamentally, the companies are competitors," Fowler said. "Where were now headed is coopetition. This doesnt suddenly make us buddies."

Despite the earnestness of Microsofts and Suns executives, some developers and other industry observers are not optimistic.

"I think what Microsoft means by interoperability ... is that Sun will do whatever it takes to make Java and other Solaris software work with whatever application and enterprise software Microsoft releases," said Ken Warner, an independent Java developer in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. "What I expect to come out of this deal is about the same as what has come out of every other deal Microsoft has made with anybody: nothing.

"There will be a lot of foot dragging and false starts on integration and API definitions that Microsoft will supposedly supply to Sun so Sun can waste precious engineering resources chasing ghosts. But really, nothing has changed. This agreement is really just a head fake," he said.

"I was not a happy camper about the apparent blackmail, and it looks like Sun used the legal system to squeeze cash out of Microsoft," said Stephen Forte, CTO of Corzen Inc., in New York. "But if they say that they will end the war and make their products all work better, then I am all for it."

Of course, not everyone agreed. Ultimately, the new Sun-Microsoft relationship should be a "win-win for developers, regardless of which camp you spend most of your time in," said Jon Rauschenberger, a .Net developer with Clarity Consulting Inc., of Chicago. "For the Microsoft camp, it brings resolution to the uncertainty around support for Java in Microsoft tools and should promote a greater level of interoperability between .Net and J2EE [Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition]. For the Java camp, it frees Sun up to continue improving support for Web services in the core Java products."

Additional reporting by Eric Lundquist, Stan Gibson and Peter Galli, in Redmond, Wash.

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