March 8, 2002 3:50 PM PST

Sun, Microsoft are battle-worn combatants

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The feud between Sun Microsystems and Microsoft that boiled over Friday has been simmering for years. See related story: FAQ: What Sun wants in its suit against Microsoft

Sun filed a private antitrust lawsuit Friday against the software giant for its handling over Sun's Java software, among other issues. But the two companies have long been bitter enemies.

They sell rival operating systems for business computers that power the Internet. The two clash over competing e-business software that companies use to build Web sites. Their rivalry even extends to office productivity software, with Sun pushing StarOffice as an alternative to Microsoft's popular Office.

Even the company's top executives have been known to throw verbal punches at each other. In a February speech, Sun Chief Executive Scott McNealy needled Microsoft's efforts to improve its security in Windows, pointing out that Sun's own Solaris operating system has security built in.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates isn't afraid to fire back, recently criticizing Sun for not joining an industrywide coalition aimed at ensuring Web services compatibility. Web services is an emerging market where software is available over the Net on a myriad of devices, such as PCs, cell phones and handheld computing gadgets--and both Sun and Microsoft are competing on the software that builds Web services.

"It's like the Cold War when the Soviet Union sent Cuban troops to Africa, and the United States knew they had to do something in Africa, so they countered by funding rebel troops," Giga Information Group analyst Mike Gilpin said. "You have that same geopolitical thing going on between Microsoft and Sun. What one company does has full meaning to what the other company does. It's a tit for tat that's going on."

Now Sun is seeking damages that could top $1 billion over Microsoft's alleged abuse of its monopoly in the operating system market. As part of Friday's private antitrust suit, Sun also wants Microsoft to release the underlying source code for Internet Explorer, and to release interfaces between Windows and higher-level Microsoft software. Sun also seeks to force Microsoft to ship Java with Windows XP and Internet Explorer.

The two companies are no strangers in the courtroom over Java.

Throughout the late '80s and '90s, Sun was primarily a hardware company, selling servers that the company bundled with Solaris, an operating system that competes against Microsoft's Windows operating system.

But the rivalry grew more intense in the late 1990s when Sun invented Java, a software language that allows a program to run on multiple computer platforms without having to be rewritten for each one. When Java emerged, it was immediately hailed as a technology that could greatly affect Microsoft's future, as it allowed developers to create desktop applications that could run on any operating system.

As a result, developers ideally would not have to dedicate themselves to writing Windows programs to survive. Although hype outpaced actual Java implementation, the technology has steadily caught on.

"Sun used to claim that it competed with Microsoft, even though Sun was really a hardware company. Microsoft was a target to aim at as Scott McNealy built the company," Illuminata analyst James Governor said. With Java, "McNealy is getting his wish, and Sun is really competing with Microsoft."

Sun sued Microsoft in 1997, charging that the Redmond, Wash.-based company breached its contract by trying to extend Java so it would work differently, and presumably better, on Windows computers. One of Sun's main arguments in the case was that Microsoft wrongfully advertised that its products were Java-compatible because, in Sun's eyes, they were not. Those changes broke the universality of Java, Sun argued.

After four years in court, the two companies settled in January 2001. Microsoft would pay Sun $20 million, and Microsoft would be permanently prohibited from using "Java compatible" trademarks on its products.

But in the past year, the rivalry between Microsoft and Sun has flared again.

In the years since that lawsuit was filed, Sun--with the help of partners IBM, Oracle and BEA Systems--has succeeded in spreading Java to servers and has begun adding it to gadgets such as Palm handheld computers and cell phones. The two companies now compete in e-business infrastructure software that helps companies create Web sites: Sun promotes tools and software based on Java while Microsoft steers its customers toward Windows and its new .Net software strategy for building Web services. In fact, Microsoft has created its own Java-like language, called C#.

Sun in February embraced the Linux operating system by selling Linux-based servers. Linux's rising popularity is considered a threat to Microsoft's Windows monopoly.

The two rivals have even waged a war-of-words over their plans for Web services. In fact, Sun is the driving force behind the Liberty Alliance, a coalition of technology companies that aims to create a universal online registration and identity system that rivals Microsoft's own efforts with its Passport authentication service.

"Sun views Microsoft as the evil empire," Gilpin said. "They find it necessary to counter everything that Microsoft does."

 

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