Does Sun want to become the next Microsoft?

A little-known group within JavaSoft could make this happen

One of the lesser known facts about Sun's JavaSoft division is that it owns the source code to a complete suite of object-oriented productivity applications. Buried in a nondescript building just off of San Mateo, CA's Campus Drive is code for what has been described as a "top shelf" word processor, spreadsheet, presentation system, and even a database.

And Sun doesn't just own the code; it owns the company that wrote it: Lighthouse Design Ltd.

So is JavaSoft about to get into the personal productivity applications game? Well, maybe. The object-oriented language that the Lighthouse apps are written in is not Java -- it's Objective-C -- and the platform they run on is not the Java platform; it's OpenStep.

An acquisition mid-stride

It seems as though Sun has never quite known what to do with Lighthouse Design. In the summer of 1996 Sun's then-CTO Eric Schmidt claimed that the 2 million acquisition "further enhances our commitment to NEO, Sun's object-oriented network environment." Lighthouse seemed like a good source for software and development talent in Sun's object-oriented world.

The only problem was this: As the acquisition was going through, Sun was changing its OO focus from NEO on the server and OpenStep on the client to Java everywhere. So after some time within Schmidt's CTO group, Lighthouse was moved into the JavaSoft organization where it is now known as the Java Applications Group.

The Evil Empire?

Java Applications Group? The vast majority of Sun's Java development has been focused on the Java Platform: the Java class libraries and virtual machine (JVM) specification. But these products have not exactly been gold mines for JavaSoft. The class libraries are freely available, and the JVM can be licensed for a song. If JavaSoft wants to make some real money, it will need to sell its software rather than give it away. And JavaSoft, with its intimate knowledge of the direction of the Java classes, could do quite well for itself selling applications. After all, the Sun business unit controls a platform that runs on almost any computer you can think of. And, by the way, Java happens to be an ISO standard that is also controlled by Sun. Not bad.

In fact, it sounds familiar.

So is JavaSoft trying to become the next Microsoft -- a fearsome competitor that leverages its control of the platform (in Microsoft's case, Windows) APIs to compete as an applications vendor?

"I think the deep-seated answer to that is yes. Who doesn't want to be Microsoft?" says J.P. Morgenthal, president of the NC.Focus consultancy. Morgenthal says he doubts that Sun has any immediate plans to become a Microsoft-like corporation, but he warns that the business model that JavaSoft currently has in place is not necessarily permanent. "There are no guarantees. Sun owns Java. They can do whatever they want whenever they want. Remember that their bottom line is to report to their shareholders."

Others are not so sure. Wil Shipley, who as President of the OpenStep development shop, Omni Development, has followed Lighthouse since its pre-Sun days says "my feeling is that JavaSoft isn't really designed to make money. It's designed to sell servers." He says that the Lighthouse acquisition would have been a good way to deliver high quality productivity apps to Solaris OpenStep users, but questions whether the same can be done on the Java platform, where porting and redesign would be involved. "Sun doesn't have a really good idea of productivity apps and the way they should work."

First steps

In a recent InfoWorld interview, JavaSoft president Alan Baratz said that JavaSoft is beginning to take its first steps as an application vendor, but predicted, "we are not going to push into a broad range of applications because we do understand that it is critically important to build a base of ISVs that are successful in Java." Translation: If JavaSoft competes with its ISVs too heavily, they will abandon the platform.

In fact, Sun has already begun to sell Java applications. It has been shipping its Java Studio and Java Workshop development tools for years and sells a Java Web server as well.

Last December, Sun acquired a little OpenStep application maker, called Sarrus Software, who just so happened to have developed a Java calendaring application called Pencil Me In.

PULLQUOTE: green right Sun owns Java. They can do

whatever they want whenever

they want. Remember that their

bottom line is to report to

their shareholders.

--J.P. Morgenthal, NC.Focus :END_PULLQUOTE

And what is Sarrus doing today? Working in the Java Applications Group, under the supervision of former Lighthouse CEO Jonathan Schwartz.

And how does Sun plan to make money off of Sarrus? Schwartz will not cite any specific products, but when he was asked what new products JavaSoft plans to sell, Baratz replied, "There is a high probability that in the very near future we will add calendaring because currently there's no standard calendaring service."

And here may lie Sun's real motivation for developing Java applications. If Sun sees that the Java platform is missing certain applications that would help it succeed (like say decent desktop productivity applications), it may very well have to create them itself. Morgenthal agrees: "It could be something they need to do to stay alive."

Some OpenStep users sourly note that Sun has hindered their platform in this way by keeping the Lighthouse applications under lock and key. Though OpenStep ISVs, including Claris, have reportedly approached Sun about purchasing the Lighthouse applications for OpenStep, Sun isn't interested in selling.

Despite its name, Scwhartz does not see his group as an application development shop. The team has gone from being "OpenStep everything" to doing Java "tools and components development," he says. In addition to some work on the Java Foundation Classes (JFCs Java printing, for example is being worked on in the Java Applications Group), Schwartz says his team is focused on developing the building blocks that will allow custom application developers to write to the Java platform. "Right now it is just vitally more important for JavaSoft to get custom apps built and deployed than deliver its own productivity applications, or its own calendaring products, or its own test products for that matter," he says.

Or another empire?

JavaSoft will become an applications vendor when "Alan Baratz feels that a sufficient volume of customers...start deploying their own Java applications," says Scwhartz.

Until then, it seems, the Java Applications Group will be the place where things like graphics frameworks and inspector mechanisms for Java get developed.

And personal productivity tools are being developed too, though it appears that Sun has not decided whether to sell them as standalone applications or as components for enterprise developers. In addition to the Sarrus calendaring application, sources within JavaSoft say that the Java Applications Group has done a Java port of Lighthouse's Concurrence slide-show application. It's being called LightShow.

One ISV working closely with JavaSoft says that Sun is more likely to become the next Lotus Development, rather than Microsoft. Barry Zane, the vice president of development for Applix, which ships its own Java-based spreadsheet and word processor applications, says that if JavaSoft wants to get into the applications game, "I believe they would have to pursue it more as Lotus is doing, with very low functionality applications." He adds, "they aren't building a high-end spreadsheet or word processor. If they were to start doing that, then we'd be in a more competitive environment."


So what does Sun have to show for its 3 million Lighthouse acquisition? The Java Applications Group has shipped a product called JavaPlan, software that lets its now-abandoned OpenStep customers develop Java applications.

Schwartz says that at next month's JavaOne conference, his group will announce a new version of JavaPlan, code-named Phoenix, that is written for the Java rather than OpenStep runtimes."It will be largely similar [to JavaPlan]," says Scwhartz, "but we'll add support, through an API for the extension of the application to custom environments. So one of the things you might do, for example, is create Enterprise JavaBeans."

The product will have a different interface, with a "hierarchy browser," so "as you're creating different classes, you can see the hierarchy being populated in front of you," says Schwartz. Users will also be able to enter Java code directly into Phoenix something they couldn't do with JavaPlan.

Schwartz says that Phoenix will not have the performance woes that OpenStep users might expect from a Java port (one user predicted it "will probably be as slow as a sedated postman in slow motion") because Sun has learned a thing or two from porting applications to Java in the past. In particular, its Java WorkShop product has had its performance sped up significantly since its sluggish first release. "There's a lot of interaction between the Phoenix team and the WorkShop team. So we can ask, `OK, where did you get burned? How do we make sure we don't do that?'"

The NC.Focus analyst Morgenthal says that a computer-aided software engineering (CASE) tool like Phoenix has been anticipated for some time. "They're late in terms of delivering on their original concept, but they're by no means out of the game. No one else is there," he says. "It would be a unique offering if they can get their act in gear."

Phoenix will be available in April. It will be free to anyone in academia, but pricing for the rest of the world has yet to be determined.

Learn more about this topic

  • JavaSoft Sarrus
  • Applix Omni Devlopment
  • Lotus Microsoft