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Sun files private antitrust suit against Microsoft over Java

Sun has filed a private antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft alleging Microsoft's illegal behavior has harmed Sun's Java platform. The legal action drives a further wedge between the two biggest players in the Web services market.

Sun Microsystems has followed AOL/Netscape by filing a private antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. The complaint, filed on Friday at the US District Court of Northern California in San Jose, alleges that Microsoft "harmed the Java platform" through its illegal behavior. The core of the case appears to be the allegation that Microsoft has sought to mimic the functionality of Java with the .NET framework, and then tried to impede Java's progress in order to catch up.

"It proves our design philosophy was exactly correct," says Michael Morris, senior VP and general counsel at Sun, who will be in charge of the case. "We had and have the right answer. Microsoft didn't, and so they tried to buy time in order to copy it." And if that's not enough, Morris says that Microsoft's ultimate goal is to "establish a series of Microsoft-controlled choke points to Internet access."

Sun's detailed complaint also cites illegal monopolization charges in connection with Microsoft's PC operating systems, browser and office suites, plus attempts to illegally monopolize the workgroup server operating system market through Windows NT/2000. It alleges illegal tying between browser and operating system and the .NET framework to the operating system.

Context: Morris says it's a broader action than the breach of contract suite Sun took out against Microsoft in 1997. That was filed to "protect the integrity of Java" after Sun had accused Microsoft of modifying its Java implementation so that it would work only on Windows platforms. That action was settled in January 2001 with a $20m payment from Microsoft to Sun. Microsoft won an agreement that it could use its existing Java technology in current and beta-stage products for seven years. But it was banned from using newer versions unless it agreed to pass Sun's compatibility tests.

In July last year, Microsoft said it wouldn't be including any Java virtual machine within Windows XP. Now, if OEMs don't pre-install one, users must download an install a JVM themselves the first time they come across a Web page or program that requires one. They are re-directed to a Microsoft site and offered Microsoft's four year-old version. At the time, Sun said this move would have no impact on the progress of Java. Now it appears to have changed its mind.

Other litigation: Just as the new case broadens Sun's original suit against Microsoft, so it also "expands on the remedies being pursued by the states that have not settled in "US vs. Microsoft." Many of Sun's claims in its private antitrust suit were not adjudicated in the Department of Justice's case, it says. But it's unlikely to have any affect on that case. On Friday, Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly agreed to postpone the hearings on sanctions for a week, giving Microsoft until March 18 to further prepare itself.

AOL's Netscape Communications filed its own private antitrust lawsuit on January 18, alleging anticompetitive conduct connected with the Netscape browser. But while the AOL complaint was 'bare-bones' and closely related to the case already pursued by the US government, Sun has prepared a detailed, 76-page complaint. It's seeking a permanent injunction requiring Microsoft to disclose and license proprietary interfaces, protocols and formats and to unbundle tied products. It's also speaking unspecified damages ("north of $1bn," says Morris) that would be tripled under antitrust laws.

Next stages: Like the non-settling states, Sun is seeking a 'must carry' ruling, where Microsoft is forced to include the latest, unmodified binary implementation of the Java Runtime Environment for Windows (provided royalty-free by Sun) in its operating systems, browsers and .NET products. It also wants Microsoft to technically disclose interfaces, protocols and other technical information six months before it ships new operating system releases.

Morris believes the case could be heard and decided in under a year, mainly because "most of the critical facts have been established and are not contestable." Asked about the difficulties of obtaining injunctions, he pointed to the two won injunctions during the previous case.

Conclusion: The legal action drives a further wedge between the main protagonists of Web services and component software, although it's clear that most of the other players in the industry will continue to negotiate their way between the two. Neither Java nor .NET will exist on its own, and the shift to Web services is reducing Microsoft's ability to lock in customers to an all-Microsoft world, in any case. But the move nevertheless marks a further intensification of the continual legal pressure surrounding just about all of Microsoft's activities.

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