Microsoft-friendly Sun still awaits change

End of legal wrangling removed a wall between the companies, but there is no effect on products yet.

Ben Lenail's address book has contact information for over 180 Microsoft employees. At first glance, this might not seem significant, but Lenail is an employee of Sun Microsystems, and a year ago a protracted legal battle between the two companies had made communication almost impossible, and a fat Microsoft contact list like Lenail's unthinkable.

"The mindset was that we were in a ferocious competition, and there was no common ground that we could agree on," said Lenail, a director of corporate development who now works as the manager of Sun's relationship with Microsoft. "We were kind of shut out of a lot of their protocols and their technologies," he said. "A lot of it had to be reverse engineered and done via guesswork."

The new detente between the two rivals may make it easier for Sun engineers to make their software interoperate with Windows systems, but the first year of collaboration hasn't had any drastic effect on Sun's product line. Still, Sun is in the midst of a corporate re-invention and it has made a habit of taking unexpected turns over the years. The Mountain View, California server vendor is about to hand off much of the development of its flagship Sparc-based systems to Fujitsu, and Sun is now betting big on a new generation server designs based on Intel's x86 instruction set -- a platform traditionally associated with Microsoft's Windows operating system.

There are reasons to believe that the second year of the Sun-Microsoft relationship could mark some more radical changes than the first.

Employees from both companies say the results of their accord are more tangible than one might gather from a glance at the product portfolio. "From our ground-level perspective over here... this Sun-Microsoft partnership appears to be more substantial than mere mutually expedient legal maneuverings," wrote Bryce Milton, a development manager at Microsoft's Enterprise Engineering Center in a recent Web log entry. His group recently took delivery of over US$1 million worth of Sun's x86 hardware in order to help customers test applications on Sun's systems.

Legal wrangling effectively threw up a wall between the two companies. According to Sun employees, the seven-year dispute eventually became so nasty that any dialogue between the two vendors was deemed likely to trigger a subpoena. "We had reached a place of profound mistrust," said one Sun staffer, who asked not to be identified. "We had got to the point where our legal counsel had told us not to communicate with them because it would trigger discovery actions on their part."

When the legal settlement was announced last year, not only were these barriers to communication effectively removed, but the former foes were also turned into allies, of sorts. Microsoft and Sun entered into a ten-year collaboration agreement and immediately set up a timetable for regular meetings between their top executives. Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates and Sun Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Greg Papadopoulos now meet in person approximately every two months, and have phone calls every other week, according to Lenail. And the chief executives of both companies, Scott McNealy and Steve Ballmer have regular bimonthly phone calls, he said.

Observers believe that this closer relationship at least opens the door for some significant changes ahead.

Foremost of these is the possibility that Sun may finally join its other server rivals and begin selling Microsoft's Windows operating system. Even before the lawsuit was settled, Sun had begun certifying its x86 hardware to run Windows, and it already sells versions of the Linux operating systems from Red Hat and Novell. Some believe that an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) relationship with Microsoft would be a logical next step as Sun looks to build its x86 business.

In the second half of this year, Sun expects to begin shipping a new generation of x86 systems, code-named Galaxy, that will be based on Advanced Micro Devices's Opteron processor. Designed by Sun co-founder Andreas Bechtolsheim, these machines are expected to be different from any other Opteron systems on the market, according to Sun executives.

With Sun getting into Opteron system design for the first time, some observers believe the company will feel increasing pressure to enter into an OEM relationship with Microsoft, which would give them better access to Microsoft system engineers and help Sun ensure that Windows performed well on their systems. ""There are technical advantages to being an OEM," said Michael Goulde, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. "There's a close working relationship between the server development team at Microsoft and the hardware designers," he said. "The end result is to have hardware supported with appropriate and high performing drivers."

"I think they'll do a deal become an OEM," he predicted.

The Sun executive responsible for the Galaxy systems, Executive Vice President John Fowler disagrees. "It's a pretty common question... when are we going to OEM Windows," he said. "I already think that the epic milestone has already passed, because we enable our Windows channel."

Fowler said that because most enterprise users already purchase Windows licensing directly through Microsoft, and can get Windows support on Sun hardware through channel partners, there was no need for his company to ship Windows with its systems.

A second option opened by the settlement could be the release of Sun's Java platform under an open source license. Though Sun executives tend not to comment on this matter, both current and former employees maintain that one little-known side effect of the Microsoft lawsuit was that it effectively shelved any serious discussion of open-sourcing Java.

"There was no way in the world that Sun would open source Java as long as that litigation was in place," said Anne Thomas Manes, a director of market innovation at Sun from 2000 to 2001 who now works as a research director with Burton Group. "The lawyers said, 'You can't. You're basically going to court with Microsoft because they're not abiding by this license and now you're talking about making a new license that is open source. That's going to obviate the whole license agreement.'"

Manes believes that the lawsuit was the one remaining obstacle preventing an open-source Java. "Now that the case is over, I think that Sun has no excuse not to open source Java," she said.

Sun executives, however, appear reluctant to make the jump.

Though Sun recently adjusted its Java licensing to make it more open than it had been before, it still requires that Java licensees meet certain compatibility tests -- a restriction that puts it in conflict with the open source community. Without this enforced interoperability, Java's write-once-run-anywhere value proposition could be threatened, Sun executives say.

"We're trying to respect needs of both sides, to create a licensing and collaboration atmosphere that's as close to open source as possible while not violating the expectations of the rest of the world around interoperability and compatibility," said James Gosling, chief technology officer at Sun's Developers Platform Group during a recent teleconference with press.

Sun's customers are not necessarily interested in an open source route for the programming language, according to Gosling. "By and large, they're actually somewhere between uninterested and hostile to the sort of wild and wooly world of open source," Gosling said.

Lenail said that Sun's developers will continue to expand Sun's Windows interoperability and management capabilities. To the skeptics, he pointed out that with another nine years ahead in the joint collaboration agreement, there is much more work to do."It is an agreement for the long term," he said. "Not simply an exchange of money."

(Paul Krill of InfoWorld contributed to this story)

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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