Sun, Microsoft Filling in Details

The companies have reached a settlement, but the hard work of interoperability still lies ahead.

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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."