A group of industry giants led by Microsoft last week came out against Sun Microsystems' plans for a Java standard, just in time to meet Tuesday?s deadline for lodging objections to the International Standards Organisation (ISO).
Sun wants to have Java turned into an official standard by becoming the first supplier to be named as a ?publicly available submitter? (PAS) by the ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission. But, while this provides a swift route to a standard, it would effectively turn Sun into Java's controlling body in its own right, raising suspicions among some companies that it is not sincere about making Java an open standard.
Predictably, the anti-Sun lobby centres on Microsoft, but other big names have also voiced their opposition, notably Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Compaq and Texas Instruments. Only IBM has given the Sun plan its backing, and only then with certain pre-conditions attached.
Clyde Camp, director of corporate standards at Texas Instruments, explained: "We do not believe that a single company, even with the best intent and input from other sources, should effectively control an international standard of this type. We would feel much more comfortable if Java were being submitted by a recognised industry consortia or user group in which true multi-organisational consensus was reached."
Dave Michael, speaking for Apple?s Global Standards division, raised a point made by all the objectors - should Sun, as a profit making corporation, be entrusted with the role of official guardian of an industy standard? He pointed out that the PAS process was developed to allow consensus-based organisations to submit their work for international approval, a brief that he saw as incompatible with Sun?s commercial status.
"Apple is funadmentally opposed to any single for-profit company being allowed to become a PAS submitter," he said. "[This] is not in keeping with the original intent and sets a dangerous precedent that could allow any number of proprietary solutions to be considered."
For its part, Compaq expressed concern, in its written objection to the ISO/IEC, that Sun has not been sufficiently clear about how it would evolve Java "in response to, and at a pace consistent with, market conditions" or how it would determine "market and technical merit" - the criteria on which Sun says it will base decisions on changes to the standard. Compaq also questioned how disputes and conflicts would be resolved on future enhancements.
Inevitably, the most vigorous opposition to Sun?s plans came from Microsoft, which accused the company of trying to maintain a tight hold on Java while pretending to throw it open to the entire IT industry. Brad Silverberg, Microsoft senior vice president, went as far as to warn the ISO and IEC that they would damage their own credibility if the Sun proposals are accepted.
"Microsoft believes that Sun?s application demonstrates that Sun wishes to retain full ownership and control over its Java specifications while simultaneously reaping the benefit of an ISO/IEC standard for its proprietary technology," he claimed. "[Acceptance] would also create an adverse precedent with numerous and long lasting problems for the standards community."
He picked up on the commercial nature of Sun highlighted by other objectors. "Sun, like any other for-profit corporation in the software or hardware industry, has no mandate to achieve broad consensus. By the terms of its corporate charter, its principal focus is maximising shareholder value by competing with other companies for market share."
Silverberg was specifically concerned with Sun?s stated intent to retain the trademark on the name ?Java?, which he said was not in the tradition of others, which had relinquished absolute control over their trademarks to ISO. "By retaining all trademark rights in the name Java, Sun wants to continue to dictate when and how its competitors refer to products that comply with Sun-defined standards for Java," he claimed.
And he re-aired a familiar grievance in Microsoft?s Java propaganda war with Sun. "Sun is unwilling to cooperate with affected parties regarding the future direction of its Java technology," he alleged. "It is very much focused on advancing only its own interests and those of parties that share its strategic vision. Microsoft and others have been systematically and deliberately excluded."
Jim Mitchell, vice president of technology and architecture at Sun?s subsidiary Javasoft, admitted that Sun?s application to become a PAS submitter was unusual, but added that there were sound reasons for wanting to take this approach. "Sun decided to pursue PAS submitter status because taking specifications to the ISO/IEC for adoption can be relatively fast, consistent with an industry on Internet time," he explained.
"Sun?s process for developing Jva specifications is not unilateral, nor can it be," he went on. "Java?s value is intimately bound to its broad acceptance by the Internet community and the computer industry, who will not stand for any attempts to foist proprietary solutiosn on them in place of open standards like TCP/IP and HTML."
He conceded that Sun did intend to retain ownership of the Java trademark, but added: "I think that ISO should not take it on due to all of the financial and other issues involved. Sun is willing to hold all the trademark and continue to license it on a non-discriminatory basis at a reasonable fee."
He concluded: "We know we are the first company to apply to become a recognised PAS submitter, but we hope that we not the last and that other companies and organisations with suitably open processes and open specifications will be encouraged to contribute via the PAS process."
This was clearly a sentiment shared by IBM - which might reasonably be assumed to have ambitions of a similar nature - when it provided the only significant backing for the Sun proposals. "IBM does not believe that acceptance of Sun with [certain] restrictions would open the floodgates for many other companies to apply to be PAS submitters," it said in its comments to ISO/IEC.
But IBM?s blessing was only given with a number of provisos, notably that Sun needed to clarify its criteria for granting Java patent licences. "Ideally a statement that Sun will grant licences on a non-discriminatory basis under reasonable terms and conditions would eliminate any ambiguity on the patent issue," said the IBM submission.
A joint US technical committee of the ISO/IEC will vote on whether to back Sun?s proposal in early June. Previous US policy has been not to accept single companies as official standards makers. Whatever postion the US adopts, there will be a full and final international vote involving committees from 22 countries in July.
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