Last modified: December 2, 1998 4:00 AM PST
Jinxed by Java
Though Java has yet to put a dent in Microsoft's control of the desktop--through the operating system and applications market--it still presents one of the most viable ways for the industry to grow outside Redmond's purview, analysts argue.
Java potentially offers both developers and corporate IS organizations a cross-platform technology not wedded to a single company's operating system. Developers would not need to write new applications to Win32, the Windows application programming interface (API), to guarantee market acceptance, since Java applications can run just fine on Unix and the Macintosh.
Recent events seem to indicate that Microsoft may have its hands full combating Java in the coming months.
First, the judge in the antitrust lawsuit brought against the company by Sun Microsystems is expected to rule that Microsoft violated its licensing contract for Sun's Java language. Already, Microsoft has been forced to add support for Sun's application programming interfaces to its virtual machine and Java development tools.
The decision has led to speculation that Microsoft might abandon efforts to comply with Sun's "official" version of Java in favor of a Microsoft-only technology that can read Java applications.
Then, just last week, a resurgent America Online purchased Netscape Communications and aligned itself with Sun in a three-way deal that could make Java a key technology to be offered to AOL's 14 million subscribers.
The new troika also could breathe life into a splintering Java front. What started out as a united front against Microsoft, led by Sun, Netscape, Oracle, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM, had lately shown signs of stress, in a pattern eerily similar to past splintering of the Unix market.
Microsoft had its chance to control Java
Just how serious does Microsoft perceive the threat of Java to be? In January 1997, a company executive proposed rewriting the company's Windows operating system, from top to bottom, in Java. The effort, detailed in an internal presentation called "Microsoft API Strategy: Java is our destiny," was presented as evidence during the ongoing antitrust trail involving Java originator Sun Microsystems.
That idea was vetoed by Microsoft chief Bill Gates, who thought the strategy would eventually undermine the Windows API and franchise.
But the presentation shows that the company saw Java as such a serious threat that it considered embracing it for its most valuable piece of technology, the Win32 API.
Instead, Microsoft decided that the best route was to splinter the Java market by building a Java Virtual Machine tailored specifically to Windows. Applications written to it would run only on Windows.
The company then designed a Java tool, Visual J++, with special extensions that favored designs for Windows. Then, the company distributed mass quantities of the tool free to developers. The strategy was to lock Java developers into Windows, in what one executive called a "Trojan horse."
In documents presented during the Java trial, Thomas Reardon, a Microsoft executive, wrote in a November 26, 1996 email message that the company should "quietly grow J++ share and assume that people will take advantage of our classes without ever realizing they are building Win32-only Java apps."
Ironically, at one point not long ago, Microsoft had an opportunity to steer the course of Java development, especially on the server, as evidence presented in the ongoing Sun Java trial shows.
In a July 3, 1997 email message written by Microsoft product manager Charles Fitzgerald, and sent to Bill Gates and other top Microsoft executives, Fitzgerald refers to a meeting between Gates and Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Novell.
Fitzgerald says in the message that he and other Microsoft executives met with Novell to "discuss opportunities to collaborate on 'Java server APIs.'"
"The basic proposal was Microsoft and Novell cooperate to define standard Java APIs for things like file/print, directory, security, licensing, database, transactions, message queuing, management, etc.," according to the message.
"Eventually [Gates and Schmidt] came out and said that if Microsoft and Novell support the same APIs, it will be a standard," Fitzgerald wrote.
Two days later, Gates vetoed the idea in an email mesage that also illustrates just how important Windows API control is to Microsoft.
"We do NOT want to ship the 'standard' with Windows because we want to make the native APIs more attractive," Gates wrote. "We want to evolve the standard APIs rapidly, and not have ISVs [independent software vendors] spending time on something that is cross-platform."
"Java standard server APIs are bad news for us. I veto any cooperation with this group unless someone comes and convinces me otherwise," Gates concluded.