Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

Sun versus Microsoft

In this Web Services Advisor column, we'll take a look at the fight between Sun and Microsoft, and what it might mean to you.

The Web Services Advisor
(To receive this column in your inbox,
click Edit your Profile and subscribe.)

Sun versus Microsoft
The fight between Sun and Microsoft over the future of Web services is more than just about egos, turf and bragging rights (although it's about that as well) — it goes to the very heart of the future of Web services and how they'll be used in the future. The two companies have fought about everything from Java to .NET to the Passport and Liberty Alliance authentication technologies to even who is allowed to join an industry coalition. In this Web Services Advisor column, second of a two-part series about Sun, we'll take a look at the fight between Sun and Microsoft, and what it might mean to you.

Java: The heart of the battle
At the core of the Web services fight between Sun and Microsoft is Java. In the Sun worldview, Web services should be written in Java and then discovered and delivered using Web services protocols including SOAP and UDDI. Java Virtual Machines (JVMs) would be built into computers, cell phones, PDAs and wireless devices, and so Web services could in theory be written once and delivered to any device intelligent enough to access the Internet.

Microsoft, of course, doesn't see it that way, and promotes .NET instead, in which Web services are built using Microsoft's own set of tools. As a way of thwarting Sun, Microsoft has stopped included JVM support in Windows XP and beyond, and won't include it in Windows operating systems for other devices as well.

The stakes for each side are exceedingly high. If Microsoft can succeed in eliminating Java as the development platform for Web services, it's not clear what kind of future Sun has as a company. Without Java, Sun in essence becomes just another hardware company, and one without much of a unique niche.

On the other hand, if Java becomes the standard for delivering Web services, then the underlying operating system becomes much less important, and in a sense becomes a commodity. And without Windows, what kind of future does Microsoft have?

The fight is bitter enough to have gone beyond a war of words, and has spilled over into the courts. Sun has filed an estimated over-$1 billion lawsuit against Microsoft, alleging that the Redmond company uses unfair business practices by keeping Java support out of Windows in an attempt to destroy Java. Microsoft, according to the suit, is trying to delay Java adoption long enough so that .NET will ultimately take hold and squash Java for good. The suit is only the surface manifestation of the bad blood between the companies — for example, according to Information Week, Michael Morris, senior VP and general counsel for Sun, called Microsoft's actions concerning Java "illegal acts from a convicted monopolist."

This isn't the first time the two have met in court over Java. Back in 1997, Sun filed a breach-of-contract suit, alleging that Microsoft violated its Java license. The suit was ultimately settled, with Microsoft paying Sun $20 million, and a new agreement hammered out concerning Java, not that it did much good to bring the sides together.

Passport versus Liberty
The fight over Java won't be settled any time soon, and neither will be the other battle in the war between the tech giants over Web services — Which authentication technology should be at the core of Web services? Microsoft is pushing its Passport universal log-on technology, while Sun counters with its counter-offering, the Liberty Alliance.

The idea behind both technologies is the same — provide a single sign-on so that you can sign into a Web service only once, have your identity authenticated, and then use any other Web service without other sign-ons or authorizations. You could, for example, be authenticated by signing onto your corporate network, and then be automatically authenticated at your business's partner networks, as well as Internet shopping sites.

Again, the stakes are enormous for both sides. Microsoft has embedded Passport into Windows XP as well as into its Web sites such as HotMail, while Sun has signed up numerous companies for Liberty Alliance, including American Express, Mastercard, General Motors, Nokia and America Online among others. Whoever controls sign-on technology ultimately becomes the gatekeeper for the online economy.

Microsoft is well ahead of Sun here — Passport is already widely used, and according to a study by Gartner, had 14 million registered users by February, 2002. The Liberty Alliance, by way of contrast, does not yet have a working product, and only released its specifications the middle of last month.

Again, feelings on both sides are harsh enough that it's reached the courts. In the anti-trust suit against Microsoft by a number of states, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's Chief Strategy Officer testified in April that Passport was a "threat" because it will lead to Microsoft acting as a middleman between Web sites and their customers. Microsoft, rather than the sites, would own information about the customers. And he warned that because Microsoft own the operating system that most people use, and the browser that most people use as well, the use of Passport will only further the company's monopoly.

Yet one more food fight
If all this isn't enough, Sun and Microsoft also squabble about smaller matters, and on a level that often sounds like bickering children. The most obvious example concerns the Web Service Interoperability organization (WS-I), a group formed by IBM and Microsoft to promote Web services. Microsoft has made sure that Sun was invited to join only as a contributing member, rather than as a founding member. In response, Sun has refused to join the organization at all. Much mud slinging has ensued. With no grown-ups to intervene, the two sides continue to quarrel. And that means that the work of the WS-I lags.

What does all this squabbling, name-calling, and legal battles add up to? For Sun, it's not good news. Passport is well ahead of the Liberty Alliance, .NET has been gaining momentum, and Sun has only recently gotten its act together concerning its Web services strategy. If Sun continues to focus on the courts and public spats, rather than wooing developers, developing technologies, and emphasizing the strengths of its technology, it will end up losing the biggest battle of all — the fight over who controls Web services. And it will end up being all Microsoft all the time, with no other choices.

About the Author

Preston Gralla, a well-known technology expert, is the author of more than 20 books, including "How the Internet Works," which has been translated into 14 languages and sold several hundred thousand copies worldwide. He is an expert on Web services and the author of a major research and white paper for the Software and Information Industry Association on the topic. Gralla was the founding managing editor of PC Week, a founding editor and then editor and editorial director of PC/Computing, and an executive editor for ZDNet and CNet. He has written about technology for more than 15 years for many major magazines and newspapers, including PC Magazine, Computerworld, CIO Magazine, eWeek and its forerunner PC Week, PC/Computing, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Dallas Morning News among others. As a well-known technology guru, he appears frequently on TV and radio shows and networks, including CNN, MSNBC, ABC World News Now, the CBS Early Show, PBS's All Things Considered and others. He has won a number of awards for his writing, including from the Computer Press Association for the Best Feature in a Computer Publication. He can be reached at

For More Information:

  • Looking for free research? Browse our comprehensive White Papers section by topic, author or keyword.
  • Choking on the alphabet soup of industry acronyms? Visit our Glossary for definitions and explanations.
  • For insightful opinion and commentary from today's industry leaders, read our Guest Commentary columns.
  • Hey Codeheads! Start benefiting from these time-saving XML Developer Tips and .NET Developer Tips.
  • Visit our huge Best Web Links for Web Services collection for the freshest editor-selected resources.
  • Visit Ask the Experts for answers to your Web services, SOAP, WSDL, XML, .NET, Java and EAI questions.
  • Discuss this article, voice your opinion or talk with your peers in the SearchWebServices Discussion Forums.

Dig Deeper on Topics Archive

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.