Users see benefits, risks in Sun vs. Microsoft suit

Sun Microsystems Inc. CEO Scott McNealy, who studied antitrust issues as an economics major at Harvard University, has been among the industry’s most vocal critics of Microsoft Corp. And he doesn’t hesitate to put his problem with the software giant in personal terms.

“I’d love to retire and spend time with my boys,” McNealy said last summer at a technology policy conference that was held in Aspen, Co. “But I don’t want to leave them an environment that has only one choice. I’d feel too guilty.”

Sun is on a mission. The lawsuit it filed earlier this month against Microsoft is very broad, alleging a range of antitrust violations that revive some claims dropped by the U.S. Department of Justice, such as the charge of illegally tying the browser to the operating system. The lawsuit also expands the antitrust claims to the server market and Microsoft’s .Net architecture. Sun is seeking more than US$1 billion in damages.

Users and analysts see potential benefits and risks in the lawsuit. An indication of the suit’s merit may come within a year if Sun succeeds in getting a preliminary injunction that forces Microsoft to distribute its Java Virtual Machine (JVM) with the Windows XP operating system.

Such a court-ordered inclusion of JVM in XP would certainly expand Java use, said James Burke, a C++ developer at J.C. Penney Co. in Plano, Texas, who also does Java training.

“Downloading this weird thing called the Java Virtual Machine would make my dad and my grandmother scratch their heads quite a bit,” said Burke. The lack of distribution through the operating system could limit Java development to corporate intranets and other in-house uses, he said.

One goal of the lawsuit is to force disclosure and licensing of Microsoft’s proprietary interfaces, protocols and formats, which would improve Sun’s access to the Windows operating system desktop and enable better integration of products like its StarOffice personal productivity suite with Windows. But even if Sun doesn’t achieve its goals for the desktop, analysts noted that Java has been doing well in the enterprise back end.

“If they don’t win it, [Sun is] no worse off than they are now,” said Daryl Plummer, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. “Java is in no danger of not being viable.”

Still, there are risks for Sun, especially if the lawsuit becomes a distraction. John Meyer, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., said the lawsuit may help Sun’s competitors if the company gets so wrapped up in the case that its attention drifts from its business. “I really think IBM is going to be the biggest winner,” Meyer said.

Some users expressed concern about the impact that ongoing litigation will have on Microsoft.

Jerry B. Hale, CIO at Kingsport, Tenn.-based Eastman Chemical Co., has standardized his company’s 16,500 end-user machines on Microsoft products, tool sets and even e-commerce capabilities. “We’ve gotten a lot of value out of the standardization . . . and I would hate to see that destroyed,” said Hale. However, he noted that he also wants to see Microsoft compete fairly.

Other users see little to be worried about. Ed Boyd, a systems analyst at Detroit Edison Co. who does Java intranet development, said he doesn’t believe the lawsuit will have a significant negative impact on what he does. Citing the limited settlement terms in Microsoft’s antitrust conflict with the government, Boyd said Sun is facing an uphill battle. “I just don’t think they are going to get the benefit out of it that they think they are going to get,” he said.