Sun ploy sparks Java grumbling

Sun's confirmation last week that it has scrapped plans to make Java an international standard has put a damper on the company's coming out party for a new enterprise edition of the technology. And some of Sun's strongest supporters are riled.

In fact, IBM and BEA Systems, key Java boosters, last week said they have yet to sign licensing deals for the new Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE). J2EE adds a vital set of interfaces and services for building server-based applications.

A lack of vendor support for a common version of Java would be bad news for customers, who would have less assurance that a Java program written for one application server would run on another.

While IBM and BEA say they probably will sign on to support J2EE, they still have issues to address with Sun regarding the firm's control over Java.

"We were a bit surprised by Sun's decision," said a deadpan Sandy Rankin, IBM's director of Java software. "The ball is really in Sun's court now; We're interested to hear about what they see are the alternatives to accomplishing this goal of a Java standard."

Ironically, it was IBM refugee Pat Sueltz, the recently appointed president of Sun's software and platforms group, who broke the news last week about Sun's decision during the Java Business Conference '99 in New York.

"We will remain the [Java] guardians," Sueltz said, noting that the European Computer Manufacturers' Association (ECMA) - the group Sun has been working with since May to standardize Java - hadn't done anything wrong. Sun's decision had more to do with the company's commitment to control compatibility among various Java-based products and to speed Java development, she said.

However, observers say Sun's relationship with the ECMA became strained because of the group's policy of not maintaining a vendor's copyright and Sun's insistence on not giving up its Java copyright.

The Java standard decision wasn't the only move by Sun last week that rankled the Java faithful. The company had to apologise to a group of open source developers known as Blackdown after neglecting to give the group credit for a port of Java on Linux that Sun initially billed in a press release as a joint effort between it and Inprise.

Now, the good news

But Sun, like the jazz band that played cool and smooth tunes at the company's Java party last week, hit a few high notes of its own at the conference. Among these was the company's decision to do away with certain royalties it had been extracting from Java developers.

And even Sun's decision on yanking Java out of the ECMA's hands wasn't considered bad news by all Sun partners.

"Long-term, we think it would be beneficial to the industry to turn Java over to a standards body," said John Magee, Oracle's director of Internet platform marketing. "But we're comfortable with the decision on ECMA because the process [created by Sun for developing the Java specification] has been working very well."

The system he refers to is the Java Community Process, under which anyone can propose a change to the Java specification. A Sun "program office" reviews proposals and invites members of the Java development community to work on turning approved proposals into drafts that are then used by Sun engineers to build new Java code.

The ECMA decision got mixed reviews from users. Without copyright protection, Sun would be unable to go to court to prevent other companies from creating incompatible Java Virtual Machines or other software, said independent Java consultant Rajeev Karunakaran, of San Francisco.

"If making Java a standard means it becomes easier for Microsoft to create a divergent form of Java, then I think Sun's decision was right," he says.

Sun has achieved its write-once, run-anywhere goal for Java, Karunakaran says, and he wants to see that accomplishment protected.

But he also wants a Java standard - sooner rather than later. And he wants a standard that isn't tied to the fortunes of a given vendor.

Given that so many companies have so much riding on Java, the brouhaha over Sun's standards decision promises to continue.

"We want a model in place to maintain the pace of J2EE innovation," says Scott Dietzen, chief technology officer of BEA's e-commerce server group. BEA has hammered out an agreement in principle with Sun on these concerns, according to Dietzen.

That's not the case with IBM, which is wrangling with Sun over the latter's insistence of creating a label, or brand, called "J2EE compatible." IBM's Rankin says compatibility testing is vital and IBM fully supports it, but the branding would confuse enterprise customers by seeming to create a different Java, she says.

"It's not adding any value to our customers," Rankin says.

The challenge Sun faces now is managing a growing federation of vendors and developers fully committed to using Java to compete with each other. This is a political world more than a technical one. Sueltz, a veteran of years of IBM politics, may be ideally suited for this new world.

One of her first key moves was a reorganization that put George Paolini, former vice president of marketing, in charge of a new group focused on serving the needs of the vendor partners and developers. Paolini described his role as that of an ombudsman - an impartial intermediary between the community members and Sun.

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