As Sun celebrated the fifth birthday of Java last month, Microsoft was preparing to deploy the first in a host of products to challenge it.
Last week, Microsoft raised the stakes in its battle with Sun by ending its investment in Java. It will release no new versions of the Visual J Java-based development tool and instead will resell Rational's equivalent as part of its planned Visual Studio.Net development suite.
The move follows the launch last month of C Sharp, an object-oriented tool that Microsoft is positioning in the same space as Java and which is expected to ship in the next 12 months.
Analysts believe Microsoft has its work cut out catching Java. Jon Collins, senior analyst at Bloor Research, claimed the market does not want another programming language. "The future lies in interoperability. That's where Microsoft should be putting its efforts," he said.
C Sharp will win some supporters among Microsoft's large community of developers, but it is unlikely to dominate the market. Tom Murphy, an analyst at MetaGroup, said: "I don't see Java dying in the near future. There's too much momentum behind it."
C Sharp has the advantage of being designed from the ground up for XML. "It has semantic controls and libraries that let you take advantage of XML," said Murphy.
C Sharp also improves on C and C++ with improved HTML support and increased programming automation.
But functionality isn't everything when it comes to the battle for market share, and Murphy said Microsoft needs third parties to back C Sharp, as well as its loyal developers.
Endorsement from standards bodies such as the European Computer Manufacturers Association would be a public relations coup against Sun, which gave up trying to have Java ratified as a standard.
Microsoft also needs support from other vendors. One possible partner is Apple, with whom Microsoft has had an on-off relationship. Ironically, the Linux community, which is no fan of Microsoft, could also be a potential ally because many Linux developers program in C or C++.
The struggle for dominance in internet application development began last year with Microsoft's endorsement of the Simple Open Access Protocol (Soap), which it is developing with IBM, SAP, Ariba and Compaq. Microsoft hopes Soap will be adopted by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as the basis of the next-generation XML standard.
Microsoft appears to believe that if developers have a relatively simple XML-based standard to allow communication between internet applications, they will be less inclined to wade through the complicated Java specifications.
The software giant reasons that Soap could push disaffected Java programmers towards vendors that support it, which Sun does not.
Soap is also a key component of the firm's .Net strategy, which is intended to enable access to application services over the internet. Murphy believes Microsoft hopes to dominate the market with .Net by employing the same technique it used to such effect with Windows.
Initially a graphical user interface add-on to DOS, Windows was layered on top until it was robust enough to take over. Murphy claimed Microsoft is using the same tactic by layering Biztalk and Soap over Windows. "The real debate will be Java as a platform versus Microsoft.Net as a platform," he said.
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