Microsoft appears to be in a Java jam. The company's Java strategy has been on hold to the outside world throughout the quarter, with few if any public indications from Microsoft's rainy Redmond campus about the future of Java within its influential products. This holding pattern - and quiet steps that seem to reverse the company's previous Java plans - has hobbled those trying to use Microsoft's Java products to develop on its operating system platforms.
"I'm going nuts. I have sent messages to Microsoft . . . but it's bizarre. It's as if they are pretending Java doesn't exist," said Jerome Liss, vice president of application development for US-based company ViewSonics.
"We put a lot of time into development. It's as if they pulled the plug."
ViewSonics was using Microsoft's Windows CE operating system and Java tool to design applications for handheld and wireless devices until January, when Microsoft's Java support for Windows CE seemed to evaporate. ViewSonics, which develops global positioning systems and geographic information systems, wants to continue to use Java but is not getting the support it was led to believe would be coming from Microsoft.
"Microsoft had put JView [a part of Microsoft's Visual J++ tool] on Windows CE, and it was a pretty complete use of the Java virtual machine," Liss said. "They were about to update the Java support and it just disappeared from their Web site. There's no reference to Java and Windows CE - as if it never occurred."
Still on appeal
Microsoft has remained mum about its Java plans since the arrival last quarter of the latest version of its Java tool, Visual J++.
Then a November court order, now under appeal, forced Microsoft to comply with the way in which Sun Microsystems, Java's creator, interprets the Java licence.
But the reason for Microsoft's recalcitrance in elaborating on its Java plans, analysts believe, goes beyond delays resulting from its legal obligations.
The company is finding itself in a competitive pickle: supporting Sun's pure, cross-platform Java definition, rather than continuing to tie Java closely to Windows, would mean aligning itself with what could be the biggest threat to its Windows empire yet.
"Microsoft's competitive behaviour has backed them into a corner where they need to choose between satisfying their customers or their competitive positioning," said Phil Costa, an analyst at the US Giga Information Group.
"And this is a litmus test [to see] if they are truly an enterprise-class provider, because those kinds of vendors do not jerk their customers around."
When Microsoft shocked the IT world and licensed Java three years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the move was a subterfuge. Microsoft licensed Java, the thinking went, only to learn enough about it to find ways to subvert its cross-platform attributes, embracing the technology only to extend the Windows hegemony.
That supposed plan - combined with attempts by Microsoft to wrest control of the Web desktop from Netscape, which are now under US government investigation - proved moderately successful. And tripping up Java as a client platform and not just a language was largely successful, said Vernon Keenan, president of Keenan Vision, an analyst company in San Francisco.
Microsoft's Java jam got its legs, how-ever, when Sun's suit concerning Java led to the injunction in November, forcing Microsoft to modify several of its products to make them more compliant with Sun's interpretation of the Java licence it had granted.
Microsoft has adhered to the court order regarding Java while also appealing it.
While the legal and competitive issues get sorted out, Java and Windows can be viewed either as squabbling siblings that will reluctantly work together or as an estranged couple fast on the way to an ugly divorce.
Until the relationship is clear, many developers cannot proceed with their own plans.
"We're waiting for the direction from Microsoft. Without it, it's hard to know how to build your next products," said Seth Cohen, US-based product manager for Symantec's Visual Cafe Java tool.
It also remains unclear what role Java will play in Microsoft's enterprise play with Windows 2000. Although the third and likely final beta version of this Windows NT upgrade is due any week, the type of Java support it will feature is still unclear. This could be a crucial step for Microsoft, because its use of Java - particularly in the server version of Windows 2000 - could make or break buying decisions for companies that have chosen to implement Java throughout their mid-tier and back-end servers.
Microsoft last month declined to offer details about its Java direction.
However, "we are absolutely committed to making sure that there is support for the Java language on the Windows platform", said Charles Fitzgerald, group program manager at Microsoft.
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald said Microsoft is not interested in swallowing Sun's prescription for Java, is considering a non-Java route for its products, and will try to woo developers to its view for the future.
"The key decision is whether that great support [for Java on Windows] is going to occur under the terms of our licence with Sun, or outside the scope of that licence with Sun. That is the key to going forward for us," Fitzgerald said. "We want to add capabilities that are appealing to Windows developers. If we can't do that, we have to explore whether there are other avenues."
Such vague talk is fuelling growing speculation that Microsoft is amassing its forces to do battle with Java more directly - including the possibility of some sort of alternative development model.
"Evidence points to Microsoft abandoning Java. The latest beta of [Microsoft's Internet] Explorer 5.0 does not install Microsoft's Java virtual machine by default," stated an early March report from market researcher Gartner Group.
"Although Microsoft says no final decision has been made, we believe that Microsoft will not further materially enhance its Visual J++ product and will cease to evangelise it."
Unless Microsoft can win its lawsuit with Sun and work to relegate Java to being just a language, observers said the company's options are to support the pure Java model, drop Java from its products completely, or come up with an alternative cross-platform model.
Word is that Microsoft is examining a programming model that forms a potential Java alternative, code-named COOL.
"It's a code name for thoughts about future C++ technology," said Microsoft's Fitzgerald, declining to be more specific.
But analysts questioned whether changing application development strategies at this time will hurt Microsoft more than it will help.
Java won't be undermined
"COOL will come at the expense of other Microsoft tools. It will not undermine Java's success, as Microsoft hopes. Since few believed that Java was just a language before, not many will believe it now," the Gartner Group surmised.
The difficulty for Microsoft in choosing among its options is compounded by the fact that the longer Microsoft waits to make its strategic Java moves, the more traction Java gets in the worldwide marketplace, especially in the critical server space.
Battles are reportedly raging within Microsoft about how to proceed, with camps forming around pro- and anti-Java forces.
On the other hand, Microsoft is apparently having a difficult time making its move without an outcome to the languishing antitrust trial in Washington or to the Sun lawsuit in California. Either or both could go on for years in primary action or appeals.
As Microsoft forces its community of support to wait to find out what its Java strategy will be, it may only be aiding its competitors.
And the company risks further alienation of the crucial development community - outfits such as ViewSonics, which want to use both Java and Windows operating systems.
"I'm very frustrated," said ViewSonics' Liss. "Without Microsoft's Java support we would have to go to using C++ or Visual Basic with Windows CE, which would set back our work and destroy the whole concept of cross-platform development. It was working quite nicely."
For the next six months, all eyes - from Wall Street to Silicon Valley - will be on Microsoft's top brass and how they will manage to wiggle out of their Java jam.