Tear down the wall

It came about an hour into SAP CEO Hasso Plattner's keynote at Sapphire 2002 in Orlando, Plattner was talking about the two key issues his company would face in the coming months: speed and cost of ownership. Speed meant responsiveness, he suggested, the ultimate cure for user interface issues. As an example, he attributed Google's success to its rapid query retrieval.

Plattner is an engineer, a coder, although he no longer writes any of the SAP code. Speed is sweet and simple, something he could do something about. But cost of ownership is another story. "We have a critical situation in this world, and most people are not coming forward," he began.

"And I will do it -- I will risk it." Plattner drew himself up and plunged in: "I will ask someone we all have to work with, Mr. Bill Gates, to change his opinion about what is allowed to be around Windows and what is not." OK, so there it was. Plattner had spent considerable time describing SAP's investment in Java and the J2EE (Java 2 Enterprise Edition) platform moving forward.

He continued: "There is a necessity from our point of view and many other software vendor that the Java virtual machine has become a mandatory component of our software landscape. And whether Microsoft and Bill Gates like Java or not is probably not the question. Since they are such a dominant player they have to support even things they don't like."

A simple sentiment indeed, but it was compelling precisely because it came from someone with something to lose. Then a call to arms: "So using a quote of a famous American from 15 years ago, I want to say Mr. Gates -- Tear that wall down. Or probably somebody else will say, 'If you come too late, history will punish you.' That was Gorbachev's answer a few years later, and the wall came down."

Now, Plattner addressed his troops: "We need your help here," he told the 9,000 developers at the conference. "We need the Java virtual machine inside the browser on Windows, because 90 percent of our front ends are running on Windows."

Plattner dismissed Linux as a front-end replacement, arguing that SAP users would be unlikely to make such a shift in the foreseeable future. "Microsoft is the largest software manufacturer in the world and we want to work together with them. We want to even compete with them."

Finally, Plattner returned to his first target, referring to Microsoft's strategy in court and public opinion. "Bill Gates was defending himself so much with the word innovation; he shouldn't hinder innovation. That's not his style."

So far, there's been no reply from Bill Gates. I asked Tom Button, Microsoft vice president in the Developer Tools group, for his reaction. "That was just embarrassing ... I can't believe he said that. He was asking for us to open Windows to work ... I mean, where is most Java written today?"

Button asked what my reaction was. "We're not hearing a lot of thought leadership from any of the vendors," I reported. "The developer community is looking for people who are not working off of proprietary business agendas; they're looking for people who are going to solve customers' problems."

Button heard what Plattner said differently - as strictly a request that Microsoft more broadly support the later standards of J2EE and Java. "We were on that boat 'til we basically got shooed off of it," he protested. "We were investing more in Java technology than just about anybody else was, up until when Sun decided that they didn't like the fact that we were not constrained in our innovation to the stuff that they told us we could work on.

"So we had to go out and invent something new," Button continued. "And in fact we invented what we think is the post-Java platform. Java was a mid-1990s era technology ... ."

Microsoft's VB (Visual Basic) developer community has never been more important, Button confirmed. The company spends big bucks identifying and tracking the developer ranks. "We're calling the Dunn & Bradstreet corporate listings into random companies, finding a random developer and [asking], 'What do you use?' And we do this stuff relentlessly. Every quarter we call another roughly thousand developers that way. It's incredibly expensive, but we spend over a million dollars a year just doing this kind of stuff."

Are VB developers defecting to BEA's Weblogic Workshop or IBM's Eclipse or Macromedia's Flash MX? The numbers showed that the VB community is largely unchanged, Button said. "I'm not saying that most of these guys moved on to .Net and adopted it, because they haven't.

"What I'm saying is there is an early wave in about the first 30 [percent] to 45 percent of the VB developers who have tried .Net in some form and started to adopt it. But there's also a huge amount of concern for the rest of the VB developers [who ask], 'Oh my God, what should we do?' " Button said.

I suggested that customers seemed to know what to do: nothing. Why buy Exchange Server when it's not clear how or even if that code base will play a significant role in the .Net architecture? Is the HailStorm architecture going to spread across Exchange and the other server offerings, or will Jim Allchin succeed in shutting it down? Only one person knows, and he's not talking.

"To use Bill's words," Button repeated, "people don't realize, we have just rebuilt the operating system. And it is this .Net framework technology, the Common Language Runtime, the .Net framework classes. We are rebuilding everything on top of that. End to end, everything."

Yes, Bill, we hear you. Do you hear us? I guess that's not his style.

Remember, though, at the end of the day, Gorbachev didn't tear down the wall, the customers did.

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