Analysts Worry Sun May Scorch Java

Will there be 35 flavors of Java applications in the near future? Continuing uncertainty over Java standards may splinter the market and make it harder for companies to pursue Web application development strategies, warns a new report from market research firm Ovum Inc. (

Complicating matters is Sun Microsystems Inc.'s ( sudden decision to keep Java on a short leash. Sun has always stated that the Java specification would be transformed into an open industry standard, a process that has drawn considerable support from major vendors such as IBM Corp. (, as well as development tool providers such as BEA Systems Inc. ( and Inprise Corp. (

In December, however, Sun unexpectedly withdrew its proposal to standardize the Java 2 platform from the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), a major standards body. Sun said it withdrew from the process to "protect the integrity of the Java technology and the investment made in it by the worldwide community using Java technology." The vendor maintains that it will continue to collaborate across the board to ensure the evolution of the Java platform.

Sun may have been motivated to reign in Java to gain leverage in the Web application development space, says Christine Axton, analyst at Ovum and author of the report. "Sun comes from a hardware background. They haven't got as much mileage in the development tools area as the other players in the field," she says. "The Java specifications give them leverage, a stepping-stone up, and some way of competing."

This reduces the prospects of the industry being able to generate an open and flexible Java platform. Instead, each vendor may end up developing a separate flavor, as was the case with Unix, says Axton. Sun's U-turn on standardization was a mistake, she says. "Confidence in Java has been built on the back of a widespread belief that Java would become an open standard. Since Sun insists on holding the patents, it cannot be properly described as an open standard," Axton explains.

The fragmentation threatening Java specifications stands in contrast to the COM architecture, which is specified and revised by one vendor: Microsoft. "It's quite an advantage to have just one implementation and one specification," Axton says. "Because there is only one COM, it's much easier. Everybody knows what COM looks like; it's the same wherever you find it."

Since Java 2 and EJB are specifications, value-adds will vary from vendor to vendor. These features "become a proprietary part of the vendor's application server or the application development tool," Axton says. "It's an easier job for Microsoft to have a coherent strategy because vendors aren't putting anything into COM. Other people use it, but it's always Microsoft's COM."

Sun may have learned a lesson through its licensing skirmish with Microsoft over Java. "Sun realized that they would have no control over Microsoft having access to Java if it becomes an open industry standard," Axton says. "They wouldn't be able to stop Microsoft from using it."

Ovum predicts it will be at least six months before there are enough standard implementations of the Java platform for developers to make a sensible choice. Until there is broad support for the Java platform, development tools and application servers will continue to be closely bound to each other, making it difficult to select tools and runtime services independently.

But aside from its portability, one common cause keeps many vendors on board with Java. "There's no doubt about it, Java has a lot of advantages, and there's a lot of cool things about it," Axton says. "But one of the coolest things to the vendors is that it is not Microsoft."