Java power: Will Sun share it?

Critics say J2EE licensing practices resemble Microsoft’s anti-competitive behaviour. CRN takes a look at Java Licensing Practices and asks if the market is facing another big, bad bully.

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By  Colin Browne Published  November 26, 2000

Critics say J2EE licensing practices resemble Microsoft's anti-competitive behaviour. CRN takes a look at Java Licensing Practices and asks if the market is facing another big, bad bully.

When the Department of Justice’s axe fell on Microsoft, the software giant’s archnemesis—Sun Microsystems—was hosting its annual JavaOne conference in San Francisco.

Since its start in 1996, JavaOne has been a Sun lovefest, where the company reminds the industry who is in the driver’s seat of the technology that revolutionised Internet development.

And at this year’s event, no one gloated over the Microsoft antitrust ruling more than Sun CEO Scott McNealy. But industry pundits and developers say McNealy might do well to take a good look in the mirror, because he could be just as guilty of anticompetitive behaviour as Bill Gates.

The furor over Java licensing practices has raised questions about whether Sun—as the sole gatekeeper of a de facto standard—is creating an open, competitive climate for Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) licensees. That could make Sun the next big, bad bully the industry attempts to topple.

Yancy Lind, president and CEO of Lutris Technologies, an open-source consulting firm that’s in J2EE licensing negotiations, compares the Sun-Java situation to Microsoft’s push with Windows and its eventual domination of the operating system market.

“Sun has done an excellent job of marketing and has created an industrywide movement behind J2EE to the point now where people say, ‘Gotta have my J2EE,’ “ says Lind, who credits Sun and Microsoft for “shrewd business manoeuvers.”

“They’re doing something that some people might consider unethical, [but] I think it’s good-old-fashioned capitalism,” Lind says.

Sun unveiled J2EE last June. The latest specification for servers to support enterprise-scale Java applications, J2EE was developed by the Java Community Process (JCP), a group of vendors under Sun’s direction that decides on Java specs.

Though Java has never been submitted to a formal standards body—long a point of contention among vendors using the technology—Java application server vendors agree J2EE is the standard for enterprise-scale Java app servers.

That makes the J2EE brand extremely valuable. To date, 20 licensees have signed up, including Oracle, BEA Systems, IBM, Art Technology Group, SilverStream and Allaire. Others are in talks with Sun for a license.

Says Adam Berrey, director of product management at Allaire: “Sun made a big investment in [J2EE], and we have been able to work with them in a way we felt we both could be successful.”

But it’s clear Sun is walking a tightrope.

The Java business model is unique because it invites a community, the JCP, to manage the technology’s specs as a standards body would, says Tracy Corbo, senior analyst at The Hurwitz Group. The key difference is that at the end of the day, Sun owns Java, while at the same time hyping it as an open standard, Corbo says. “Nobody has tried to do this before,” she says.

Sun’s vested interest in Java, though, has been a far better motivator for evolving the technology than a standards body ever would have been, Corbo says. “The Java standard wouldn’t exist without Sun. It would have fragmented or fizzled out if there hadn’t been a champion,” she says.

Bill Roth, Sun’s group product manager for J2EE, acknowledges Sun faces a tricky balancing act: driving Java’s adoption while allowing others to help further its evolution.

“If we try to keep this technology for ourselves and we overcontrol it, the technology will die,” Roth says. “We walk on the razor’s edge between controlling the technology and keeping it open. It’s important that both the community and the press continue to monitor how we maintain our stewardship of Java technology.”

Other vendors maintain that they, too, are a big part of the reason Java has flourished, and that Sun’s proprietary hold on Java is exploiting the very partners that made the technology what it is today. Nowhere has that been more evident than in J2EE licensing. Since licensing began in December, licensees have been grumbling about the process.

Sun continues to say it wants a level playing field for all J2EE app server vendors. Yet Sun owns 50% of iPlanet, a J2EE licensee that competes with other licensees selling Java app servers.

iPlanet was the first licensee to pass a rigorous series of compatibility tests required by Sun before J2EE licensees can use the J2EE-compatible brand to sell their servers. That has cast doubt on Sun’s commitment to promoting competition.

“Sounds like insider trading to me,” says Carl Lehman, vice president of electronic-business strategies at Meta Group, about iPlanet’s first-to-J2EE-compatibility status.

Roth, however, says Sun did not give iPlanet any special treatment. “We will give any vendor that wants to be compatible plenty of help,” he says.

Jon Williams, director of product management for application services at iPlanet, also denied his company received a head start with J2EE. “We received absolutely no preferential treatment,” he says. “We worked very hard to get there and get there first. It was a market advantage that we wanted to capitalise on.”

Still, some licensees question iPlanet’s fast start with J2EE. “Some of Sun’s actions with iPlanet have been suspect,” says John Kiger, director of product marketing at BEA’s e-commerce server division.

There also lies another problem.

Although small companies can contribute to Java specs, becoming a J2EE licensee can put a strain on their purse strings. Bride says J2EE licensing fees are in the six figures, and on top of that Sun takes a percentage of royalties on the sale of all J2EE-branded app servers.

The loudest critic of Sun’s J2EE practices has been IBM, which flat-out refused to pay Sun for a J2EE license. The row garnered media attention, and Sun soon after, in accordance with an agreement the companies made in 1995 to jointly develop Java based on open standards, quietly granted IBM a J2EE license without additional fees.

“From 1995 to 1999, IBM put a tremendous investment in Java,” says Scott Hebner, director of e-business technology marketing at IBM’s Software Group.

Investments from IBM and other vendors have helped make Java a de facto standard—a reason the industry felt duped when Sun didn’t submit Java to a standards body as promised in 1999, Hebner says. “This needs to become an open standard,” he says. “The days of control points are over.”

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