Sun still shining despite long-running legal spat

Java has been one of the IT industry's major success stories. Sun Microsystems, which launched the product, claims it is used by...

Java has been one of the IT industry's major success stories. Sun Microsystems, which launched the product, claims it is used by more than four million enterprise developers worldwide. For many it is seen as the only alternative to Microsoft's .net platform.

But the programming language has faced considerable obstacles in the decade since it was launched, most notably a long-standing legal spat with Microsoft, and the failure of the Network Computer.

In 1997, Sun, Oracle, Netscape, IBM and Apple joined forces against the Microsoft/Intel monopoly, to announce the death of the PC, and the era of the Network Computer, a rival client hardware device.

Larry Ellison, Scott McNealy and Marc Andreessen were among the colourful figures who weighed into the debate at the time. Java was positioned as a desktop alternative to Windows on Intel chips.

The Network Computer was a sub-£350 machine, similar to a discless workstation, with no floppy or hard disk storage.

Its operating system hosted a small Web browser, which launched the Java Virtual Machine when a Java application was downloaded. Examples of Network Computers were Sun's Javastation, IBM's Network Station, and the Wyse Winterm 4300.

However, Microsoft fought back and won over computer equipment buyers with three initiatives: the Simply Interactive PC, the NetPC, and the 'Zero Administration' initiative for Windows. These focused on solving the issues of cost, ease of use, and manageability, with Microsoft promoting the "thick" Intel-based client as performing better than the Network Computer.

Meanwhile, Sun had a long confrontation with Microsoft over Java. In 1996 Microsoft licensed Java from Sun for five years, for £2m a year, but the following year, Sun sued Microsoft for breach of contract and copyright infringement, seeking £18m in damages.

As the case became increasingly acrimonious, a US district judge ordered Microsoft to remove the Java logo from its products in 1998, and Microsoft announced C# and the .net Framework to compete directly against Sun's J2EE.

Sun and Microsoft settled the 1997 lawsuit in 2001, with Microsoft agreeing to pay Sun £11m, and gaining the right to continue shipping products with Microsoft's version of Java technology for a further seven years.

But in 2002, Sun filed a private antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft, seeking an injunction over Sun's Java Virtual Machine's inclusion in Windows.

The final act of the drama took place in 2004, when Sun and Microsoft settled all litigation, and signed a technology-sharing agreement.

Microsoft paid Sun £850m to resolve past claims and £197m in licensing fees for unspecified Sun technologies.

Meanwhile, many companies are still paying to maintain two separate development teams for Java and .net, as well as the cost of integrating two separate sets of systems.

Has Java delivered on 'write once, use anywhere'? >>

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