The enemy: Rhetoric meets reality in Microsoft
By Mike Ricciuti
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
March 27, 2002, 4:00 a.m. PT
The war of words between Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy and his counterparts at Microsoft has been raging for so long--and has become so bitter--that it's easy to lose track of what they're fighting over.
McNealy calls Microsoft the "evil empire" and the "dark side." To him, Microsoft's Outlook e-mail software is "Look Out," the virus-prone "petri dish of choice on the Internet." Internet Information Server, software for hosting Web sites and the subject of a Gartner warning, is "the Corvair of Web servers, unsafe at any speed." Active Directory, used for keeping track of elements on corporate networks, is "Captive Directory," at the center of Microsoft's "hair ball" of inextricable software products. Finally, Microsoft's .Net strategy to extend its domination of desktop computing to the Internet is ".Not," "Not Yet" and sometimes ".Nut."
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says Sun's Liberty Alliance, intended to counter his company's Passport online authentication technology, "has absolutely no probability of mattering to the world." His predecessor, Bill
Gates, criticizes Sun on a more fundamental level: "They think the idea of empowering knowledge workers is a bad idea."
As the trash-talking continues, however, technology buyers are growing tired of the sideshow. Those in the software business and even on Wall Street say the bickering is especially irritating now, because with the advent of Web services, the industry needs to focus on some major technological differences between the two rivals that really matter.
Tony Scott, chief technology officer of General Motors, said he and other members of Sun's Liberty Alliance initiative for Web services have little tolerance for the Sun-Microsoft sniping. Sun "is a minority of one in the alliance that thinks the real battle is between Sun and Microsoft."
Scott acknowledges the bickering has become second nature for top executives at both companies but said the rank-and-file developers within Sun and Microsoft are fighting the real battle. "The guys directly involved in producing the tools and technology, no matter what company's name is on the badge, they understand the problems big-time."
Here are some of the key areas where the rhetorical battle ends and the technological clash begins:
Development tools: Sun offers SunONE (Open Network Environment), an umbrella name for its Java-based Web services strategy,
which includes Sun's Forte development tools, Solaris operating system and iPlanet application server software. Microsoft counters with Microsoft.Net, a far-ranging architecture and tools lineup that includes the Windows XP and Windows .Net Server operating systems; the .Net Framework runtime development system; and the Visual Studio.Net development tool package.
The key differences: Microsoft favors one operating system--Windows--and allows development through tools in multiple languages including Visual Basic, C++, a new Java-like language it developed called C#, and Java itself. Sun allows development on multiple operating systems including Windows, Unix, Linux and mainframe systems using a single language, Java.
Web services: Sun recently disclosed additional plans for hardware and software bundles that put some meat on the bare bones of its Liberty Alliance initiative. The alliance, which includes such heavyweights as General Motors, AOL Time Warner, United Airlines, Fidelity Investments, Vodafone and Visa, seeks to establish a widely recognized authorization system so that people can use a single sign-on for a variety of services. But Liberty hasn't yet released its specification, and many in the industry still view it as a defensive tactic to counter Microsoft's Passport system.
Microsoft says Passport is well-established and already serves as an online identification system for many of its Web properties including Hotmail, the Microsoft Network online service, and the company's developer Web sites. The system will also play a key role in Microsoft's .Net My Services plan, which is still in progress. But Passport has had its setbacks: Despite Microsoft's pledge to open the service to others, privacy organizations and consumer advocates have complained that Passport does not adequately protect consumer information, a charge Microsoft strenuously denies.
Operating systems: Sun offers its Solaris Unix operating system for its Sparc-based workstations and servers. The company has also ventured into selling Linux-powered hardware as a way to capitalize on that operating system's rising popularity and to steer sales away from Microsoft.
Servers and workstations running Microsoft's Windows have increased in processor power and graphics capabilities to offer lower-cost alternatives to Unix systems. As Microsoft moves further from the desktop PC into enterprise computing sales with Windows, additional clashes are likely. But first, Microsoft needs to ship its twice-delayed Windows .Net Server operating system.
Desktop applications: Sun's purchase of the German company Star Division in 1999 gave it a Unix-based competitor to Microsoft's wildly
successful Office package of business applications. Sun has been offering StarOffice as a free download, but it doesn't come anywhere close to Office's numbers. Sun also plans to charge an undisclosed price for the Windows and Linux categories of the software beginning with version 6.0 of the product, which sources say is due to arrive in the second half of May, while the Solaris version will remain free.
That could undermine StarOffice's appeal as a free alternative to Microsoft Office, which contributes at least one-third of Microsoft's overall revenue but has slowed in recent years. New licensing restrictions taking effect soon could force companies to migrate to Office XP, the latest version of the software package, in turn driving revenue.
Application servers: Sun offers iPlanet, the merged server software from Sun and Netscape after the latter was bought by America Online in 1999. The iPlanet package includes Web server, directory management and portal tools. While the directory software has been popular, iPlanet overall has been a disappointment since its inception.
Sun is making a renewed effort to turn the package into a cash cow as one of the few tangible ways the company can make money from Java. Sun recently purchased new "clustering" technology to bolster iPlanet. Microsoft sells similar directory, Web server and clustering technologies bundled into its Windows 2000 Advanced Server operating system. It sells a separate product, SharePoint Portal Server, for building corporate Web portals.
P2P services: Both companies are experimenting with peer-to-peer technologies for linking multiple electronic devices and their users for sharing messages and data. Sun's vision is Project Juxtapose, or Jxta, an open-source development project that links devices for peer-to-peer computing. Jxta is mostly just a vision, as few companies have experimented with the software.
Sun hopes that it's more successful than its hugely hyped Jini project, which failed to gain supporters because of its requirement that a bulky Java Virtual Machine be installed on small, memory-constrained devices. Microsoft in October of last year made a $51 million investment in P2P pioneer Groove Networks, founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie. It's unclear what Microsoft plans to do with its stake in Groove, but the company is said to be planning P2P technology as part of the next version of Windows, code-named Longhorn. Also, a P2P element could find its way into .Net My Services when the service debuts sometime next year.
For years Sun and Microsoft have waged a war of words. Now the battle is over products and strategies. Here are the major areas where they compete:
||Microsoft.Net (Windows .Net Server, .Net Framework)
Even if all these technological hurdles are resolved, long-standing issues have yet to play themselves out in the courts.
This is why software developers are anxious for Sun and Microsoft to move beyond their petty name-calling and help the industry move forward as it tries to recover from the recession and the dot-com bust.
"The rivalry is absolutely real--they each consider themselves the victim of some persecution, and they see each other as the aggressor, a source of all things bad," said Rick Ross, founder of a developers Web site called Java Lobby and a longtime follower of the Sun-Microsoft clash.
However, he added: "That stuff is old and dead."
News.com's Stephen Shankland and Wylie Wong contributed to this report.