Sun Wins One Against Microsoft—And Why Thats a Bad Thing

JVM court battle shows (yet again) that litigation isn't a good way to do business

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U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz handed Sun a win, Microsoft a setback, and all of us something new (or old) to talk about when he recently granted Sun the preliminary injunction it had sought in its private antitrust lawsuit against everyones favorite Redmond-based computer monopolist.

The specific terms of the order have not yet been determined, but the gist is that Microsoft will be required to ship a Sun-compatible Java Virtual Machine with each copy of Windows.

Presumably, this will mean Microsoft shipping Suns own Windows JVM with Windows, rather than Microsofts own seriously outdated JVM, which, according Sun, has held back the spread of Java with its agedness. Of course, Microsofts JVM has become outdated largely because Bill and Co. agreed to stop developing it as part of a settlement of a previous suit between the two companies.

Heres what it boils down to: Microsoft, through its desktop operating system monopoly, has a lock on what Sun perceives to be the sweetest software distribution system around—Windows is on everyones desktop, and inside nearly every new desktop system thats sold today.

Microsofts .Net has come onto the scene (on paper, at least), promising to do roughly what Java does, and Suns concerned that thisll mean curtains for Java, unless it can convince the courts to make Microsoft ship Suns JVM product, along with Microsofts operating system product.

With this injunction, Suns won round one, and I think its a negative development.

First, we dont want the courts deciding what goes into software products. We lambaste the courts as tech-uninformed and brand their decisions as short-sighted—then, when a judgment happens to jibe with what we want, we cheer. He who lives by the lawsuit dies by the lawsuit.

If Microsoft had made it impossible to install Suns JVM on Windows computers, and the courts ordered Microsoft to stop that behavior, that would be another story.

Alternatively, if Microsoft were preventing computer OEMs from bundling Suns JVM with its systems, as Microsoft did in preventing BeOS from sitting beside Windows on dual-boot systems, thatd be another appropriate situation for the court to address.

Suns JVM amounts to a plug-in, much like Macromedias Flash or Adobes Acrobat Reader or, to choose a more directly applicable example, Reals Real Player. These are all pieces of software that I download each time I set up a new system, and theres no reason why it should be any different for Sun and its JVM.

"But the JVM is such a large download, and Sun cant depend on Internet users to download the JVM, and users will turn instead to .Net, and all will be lost," you may retort.

The Internet is a much better distribution mechanism than is a boxed copy of Windows and new OEM shipments, and the Internet grants Sun and all the other plug-in makers Ive mentioned a much greater level of control over the product theyre distributing. And frankly, if Internet users cant handle a plug-in download, then I dont know what Sun expects theyll be doing with Java.

And as for .Net dominion, I use Java every day, and Ive been doing so for years now. Ive never used .Net. Thats today—tomorrow, people will choose what works for them. Its probably true that all else being equal, .Net could push Java off the scene at some point down the road, but Javas got a massive head start on .Net now. Itd take some major slipping by Sun to squander that lead, no matter how its JVM gets distributed.

We close with a message for users and vendors alike: As long as Microsoft maintains its desktop OS monopoly, itll have a cherry place to hawk its wares and a strong grip on how we all compute. You can either get used to it and fall in line, or start choosing open platforms for yourself and your enterprise.

Lets talk about JVMs and software distribution in the age of the Internet. Drop me a line at [email protected].