Here comes the Sun . . . lawsuit

Some software companies like to hold an industry conference that rallies support among developers. Others prefer to form strategic relationships with other vendors to include their technology in their OS.

But when Sun Microsystems wants to get the industry to adopt its software platform,

it takes a different route: a public appeal to consumers in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the San Jose Mercury News.

“”Demand that Microsoft include the Java platform in their XP operating system,”” it said in full-page ads that ran last summer. “”(Make) PC vendors like Dell, Compaq, Gateway, IBM and HP (Hewlett-Packard) include the Java platform in their applications.””

Unless obliging consumers carbon-copied their letters back to Sun, we may never know how many people picked up a pen. But that ad campaign was Day 1 in a long crusade that has led to the private US$1 billion antitrust lawsuit Sun filed in a United States federal court Friday against Microsoft.

In the suit, Sun is asking the court to force Microsoft to put Java on XP through a preliminary injunction and release the Internet Explorer source code. The suit could affect not only existing Microsoft product but also software wrapped under its forthcoming .Net initiative, the company’s ambitious bid for the Web services market.

There is a school of thought that will see Sun’s announcement as a follow-up to the lawsuit AOL filed in January. That case claimed Microsoft used unfair business practices to crush Netscape in the 1990s. It’s not. AOL wants to piggyback the U.S. Department of Justice’s ruling that Microsoft operated an illegal monopoly to get some damages and strong-arm Microsoft into giving up control of which icons sit on the desktop. Sun wants to use the courts to do what it has been unable to do on its own: turn Java into something as pervasive and dominant as anything Microsoft has ever released.

Sun was already steamed in the weeks before the release of XP, when companies like Compaq said they would use Microsoft’s Java Virtual Machine (JVM) in XP-based PCs. At that point, no one else was either, in part because (as Sun itself admitted) the company was not able to keep up with the other PC makers’ product release schedules. Microsoft, meanwhile, was content to let its JVM steal marketshare from its competitor, even though it is four years older and probably wouldn’t show Java apps to their potential. After a protracted lawsuit, Microsoft agreed to phase out the JVM within seven years, and the end of this licensing agreement means Microsoft wouldn’t have access to new versions of Java. Stripping it out of IE last year was the company’s pre-emptive move to prevent a lawsuit like this one, but the DoJ ruling gives companies like Sun heavy ammunition.

Successful software platforms take on two basic forms. There are those, like Windows and Unix, which become a de facto standard in their market. Others, like Linux and Mac OS, become a cause: programmers believe in them in a way that is sometimes out of proportion to the software’s market share.

Sun is using the legal system to argue that Java can’t live or die on its own merits because Microsoft uses Windows to keep it off the map. In the courts, however, there will be plenty of opposing witnesses to argue that Sun’s own litigious history has kept Java from being a truly open platform.

JavaOne, scheduled to run at the end of the month in San Francisco, has never been more irrelevant. Sun, and by extension Java — is no longer competing solely in the open market. It is competing in the courts, the one place Sun might see a victory. The customers’ verdict doesn’t matter anymore.

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