A right palaver about Java

Now that IBM has given the AS/400 the full e-business treatment, a new world of opportunity opens up for the platform.

Now that IBM has given the AS/400 the full e-business treatment, a new world of opportunity opens up for the platform.

Equally, the purity of the AS/400 environment is also exposed to all the convolutions and contortions that the wider industry has suffered from for years, typically regarding the issue of inter-vendor rivalry over standards and deployment methodologies.

An excellent example of this is the current squabble between IBM and Sun Microsystems over a set of specifications known as Java 2 Enterprise Edition, or J2EE.

For the last 18 months or so, Sun and its partners over Java have been putting together and fine-tuning the J2EE stack, which is intended to provide a common set of standards and implementation methods for enterprise level Java solutions. IBM has played a major part in assembling this notable project, along with contributions coming in from other J2EE confederates, such as BEA Systems. In fact, BEA became the first company to gain J2EE accreditation, apart from Sun's own iPlanet operation.

For a number of reasons, IBM has declined the opportunity to accept J2EE branding. Big Blue cites a pre-existent agreement with Sun, apparently dating back to 1996, to use any Java technology, regardless of subsequent developments. Originally, Sun was also requiring suppliers seeking J2EE branding to pay a 3 per cent tithe of follow on revenues from any implementations. IBM was a major opponent of this strategy, and Sun has been compelled to scrap its licensing charges.

Yet the row runs much deeper. IBM and other key voices in the IT industry would prefer a Sun agreement to hand J2EE over to independent and international standards bodies, thus making it a fully 'open' environment.

Why should this rather pointless infighting affect the AS/400 market? Some key points are worth recording here. For starters, Java has become the premier AS/400 development toolset with any e-business applications built and deployed using the WebSphere software. WebSphere is claimed by IBM to be J2EE compliant, despite the absence of a branded logo. If the AS/400 is to be successfully sold as an e-business server in various forms, then it will have to be a first class platform for standard Java. WebSphere is the way to get there.

What could be the outcome of this gradually chilled relationship between IBM and Sun, which was formerly so close? It is unlikely that IBM will break with Sun in the immediate future. But the longer this war of words goes on, then the greater the prospect becomes of a serious split in the hitherto fairly clannish Java camp.

The Giga Information Group is one firm of industry watchers that believes reconciliation will not occur while Sun continues its war of words against IBM. Yet Giga has seen no documented proof from Sun regarding its position.

The suspicion is that Sun is trying to stall IBM's progress with Java. Measured by the share out of the application server market, where WebSphere plays a leading role, IBM is doing rather better than Sun when it comes to selling enterprise Java systems. According to Giga, IBM currently has around 25 per cent of the application server market, with Sun not even reaching the 10 per cent mark.

Of course, the great danger is that two supplier communities will be formed around Java, led by Sun and IBM respectively. While this would be undesirable in many ways, it might not harm IBM as much as Sun in the longer term. Yet the real damage could be deterioration in the purity of Java standards, creating in turn potential difficulty over integrating any different flavours. AS/400 users may well be unfamiliar with such shenanigans over standards, and on this scale. Welcome to the world of open systems!

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