Java Can Be A Contender-If Sun Lets It

I Ever since Sun The Tamil Nadu Government
is going all out to woo the IT industry into the state. Will its efforts bear fruits?
Microsystems Inc. invented Java, a computer language for creating programs that run on
computer networks, Chief Executive Scott G McNealy has boasted that it would roast
Microsoft Corp. Now, it’s Java that’s getting roasted-and not just by the software giant.
On March 20, Java partner Hewlett-Packard Corp. broke ranks. Accusing Sun of keeping too
tight a rein on developing new versions of Java, HP has created its own Java variant for
non-computer devices such as printers. Meanwhile, other Java backers are muttering about
Sun’s heavy-handed stewardship of Java’s evolution. Even avid Java programmers carp about
its shortcomings.

Can McNealy keep Java perking? Yes, but
only if he-alongwith Java partners and customers-quit their petty infighting. Java may
never knock off Microsoft’s Windows. But faults and all, Java is still an important
breakthrough: A system for creating software that runs, unaltered, on all sorts of
computers and devices. That could make doing business across the Internet simpler and
could transform the software business in the network era from a one-horse race led by
Microsoft to a true contest.

This all depends, however, on whether Java
becomes a true standard. So far, McNealy’s approach has been to insist on strict terms for
other companies’ use of ‘100 percent Pure Java’ to enforce uniformity. When Microsoft
developed a Windows-only version of Java, Sun sued for breach of contract and, on March
24, the US District Court in San Jose granted a preliminary injunction preventing
Microsoft from using the Java logo.

Problem is, such victories may not help
McNealy with his bigger goal-to make Java a widely-used standard. Nor do his disparaging
remarks about Microsoft and its products do more than amuse geeky aficionados of Sun’s
Unix operating system. For Java to succeed, McNealy needs to befriend Windows programmers,
not insult them. Says Stan Wang, CEO of Java startup Infospace, "We don’t want to be
in the middle of a holy war."

McNealy’s energy and skill would be better
spent in fixing the broken promises he has made to Java enthusiasts. Its
shortcomings-bugs, primitive programming tools, and relatively slow performance-have
allowed Microsoft to belittle the original and offer improvements tied to Windows.

As HP’s defection shows, Java could
splinter into incompatible camps-trashing its promise of programs that can ‘run
everywhere’. The situation is coming to resemble what happened a decade ago with Unix,
another would-be universal standard: Each computer-maker tweaked it, and soon programs had
to be written anew for each brand-while Windows delivered guaranteed uniformity and became
the overwhelming standard.

How to avoid a rerun? One bold step McNealy
should consider: Cut loose Sun’s JavaSoft unit that controls Java now. With adequate
investment by partners such as IBM and Oracle Corp., JavaSoft could address the gaps
vexing them and other partners-and quell fears that Sun is shaping Java to benefit its $
8.5 billion computer business. "It would be a benefit to the whole industry,"
says Gary L Steele, CEO of Java startup Netiva Software Inc.

Strong Start
A little cooperation would help, too. Java already is off to a strong start, running on 70
million PCs and other computers. But if more computer-makers create more variants, that
momentum will slow. That’s why HP’s split is shameful. HP CEO Lewis E Platt-whose company
still backs Sun’s Java for computers-should tell his managers to stick to what programmers
want: the ability to write their programs once and run them anywhere. HP’s move-backed by
Microsoft-endangers that.

So far, "Java hasn’t lost any
momentum," says Goldman, Sachs & Co. Analyst Laura Conigliaro. But in a business
this fast-moving, customer perceptions are as important as reality. And the perception
today is that Java is getting diluted. Unless Sun and its partners can wise up and start
looking past their own noses, that perception could become reality. Then, it’s game over:
Bill Gates wins again.

April 6, 1998

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