Scott McNealy, chief executive of Sun Microsystems Inc., has never hesitated to deride the software built by giant Microsoft Corp., at times lambasting the company's most sophisticated product as a "hairball."
But at a trade show in New York today, executives from Sun plan to describe just how they are making their company's operating system, a version of Unix called Solaris, work smoothly with Microsoft's Windows NT software.
The move isn't a sign of warmer relations between the two, however. This week, Sun is battling Microsoft in a San Jose court, contending Microsoft broke the contract covering its use of the Java programming language. But Sun executives are realists. "Our customers have been asking us to inter-operate with NT," said Masood Jabbar, president of Sun Computer Systems division.
Rob Enderle, an analyst with Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, put it more bluntly. "I had been positioning Sun as the next Apple," he said, suggesting that the workstation maker was becoming an isolated island. Deciding to make its software work better with Microsoft's key product "makes Sun an ongoing player," he said.
Much of the public concern about Microsoft, as well as the government's antitrust case, has focused on Microsoft's Windows 98 operating system. But experts say the bigger wave Microsoft is trying to ride is its more sophisticated operating system, Windows NT. Analysts expect the next version, NT 5.0, to be available late next year.
Yet the animosity between Sun and Microsoft might exact a price. While Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. have tight relationships with Microsoft, Sun will not work directly with the software giant to tune its products to work with NT. Instead, it has struck a deal with AT&T; Corp., which has a license to the core NT 4.0 software. Sun will have to sign a deal with another vendor to work with NT 5.0.
And exchanges between Sun and Microsoft executives are likely to grow more intense as the court battle about how Microsoft has used Sun's Java software progresses. This week, a judge in San Jose is hearing arguments over a preliminary injunction requested by Sun that seeks to stop Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft from shipping Windows 98 and Internet software until the software giant uses a version of Java approved by Sun. Microsoft, in turn, contends that Mountain View-based Sun has tried to rewrite the contract the two companies signed over Java.
For customers, "it's something that if they had their druthers, they would like [the debate] to go away," Enderle said.
* ANTITRUST ACTION: Microsoft says misconduct claims are irrelevant to case. D9