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The Pulpit
The Pulpit

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Weekly Column

Sharper Than Ever: Microsoft's C# Language Might Be the Death of Java, but Sun's the One to Blame

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

It is easy to criticize Microsoft. Heck, I've made a career of it. Yes, they are bullies and their technology tends to be derivative and uninspired, but what bothers most of Microsoft's competitors is none of that. Microsoft's competitors are bothered by Microsoft's success, which is to say by Microsoft's lack of a credible competitor. And that's one thing (maybe the only thing) that isn't Microsoft's fault.

I am tired of people complaining about Bill Gates rather than beating him in the marketplace.

All this comes on the eve of a rumored settlement between Microsoft and the Department of Justice — a settlement that will do little or nothing to slow down the Microsoft juggernaut. That juggernaut could have been ended by competitors so many times and so long ago, yet it wasn't. And I say that's entirely because of a lack of competitive will.

What if Apple had done the really smart thing and shut down its hardware business 15 years ago in favor of selling MacOS to all comers? Would there even be a Windows today? What if AOL had put real resources behind Netscape? Would Internet Explorer be so dominant today? What makes Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems continue to think that PCs will just disappear when we all realize that what we need is a workstation that costs 10 times as much and requires an IT department to maintain? Why doesn't Sun, instead, compete with Microsoft head-on? If Sun's engineering is really so good, why can't they beat Microsoft? And why would Larry Ellison really believe that we will suddenly all awaken one day with a compelling need to give up our hard disks and put our data on unseen Oracle servers?

The truth is that each of these Microsoft "competitors" deliberately puts his products slightly askew of Windows because in their hearts they believe that technical merit doesn't really matter and that Microsoft is going to win no matter what.


What got me to this state of indignation is a dawning realization that Microsoft is about to win again in a part of the business where they have no business winning. I predict that Microsoft is about to beat the bejeezus out of Java.

Java was to have been the Microsoft-killer, gold kryptonite to what passes for creativity in Redmond. Sun's cross-platform, write-once-run-anywhere language was going to free us all from the tyranny of Microsoft and Visual BASIC, but it simply hasn't happened. For this, I blame Sun and nobody else.

Simply put, the hype in the programming community is steadily moving from Java to Microsoft's new Java competitor, C# (C-sharp). This shift is happening for a reason. When Java came to market five years ago, it was bulky, slow, and buggy. Today, five years later, Java is still bulky slow, and buggy. C#, while still in beta, already feels better than Java. Its performance is snappier. Java had an enormous head start that Sun simply frittered away. Now Java just plain feels old.

This is happening not because Microsoft is so good, but because Sun is so bad. C# and Java are astonishingly similar with the only major difference being that Microsoft left out the kludgy parts. Microsoft's version of James Gosling (the father of Java) is Anders Hejlsberg, listed as the "inventor" of C#. The guy probably started his design process by reading Learn Java in 21 Days.

Sun should have maintained its technological lead, but didn't. Why not? Don't they understand that Microsoft is like the Terminator (as depicted in the original film, the really scary one) and will never give up? .NET, whatever that is, is perceived in Redmond as the future of Microsoft, and C# is the heart of .NET. Microsoft will spend whatever it takes, take as many revs as the market requires, for C# to become the dominant programming language in the world. What other high tech company can be described as being willing to behave that way right now? Would Apple, Sun, Oracle, even IBM spend WHATEVER IT TAKES to accomplish ANYTHING?

No, they wouldn't, and that's why they are going to lose, dang it. Microsoft will lie, cheat, steal, or maybe just work very, very hard — whatever it takes. That's the most intimidating realization of all for competitors.

And of course Windows XP and xBox make Microsoft (and, by association, C#) even stronger.

Sun is giving up, descending to name-calling. The reality that all parties recognize but few will say out loud is that Microsoft will prop up .NET through the bad economy, which is something Sun won't do with its .NET competitor, the Sun Open Net Environment (Sun ONE). Sun ONE is probably great technology, but the simple fact is that it exists almost entirely to compete with .NET. And for exactly this reason, Sun has less faith in, and resources behind, Sun ONE than Microsoft has behind .NET. Killers don't have to dress well and Sun ONE barely dresses at all.

The bottom line here is that Microsoft sees its very survival tied-up in .NET while Sun sees no such connection. Sun ONE is nice, but whether it succeeds or fails won't mean much to Sun's hardware sales. Sun ONE is, as much as anything, for Sun a matter of ego. That means it is important in that people will do really, really stupid things in the name of ego (I should know), but ego gratification isn't often a prerequisite for survival. In other words, McNealy isn't willing to bet the company on either Sun ONE or Java, while Gates and Ballmer are happy to bet their company (have ALREADY bet their company) on .NET and Java. And in the hearts, all sides know Microsoft will win.

Now Java begins its slow decline as C# becomes dominant. I don't want it to be this way, but it deserves to be this way. The transition will be almost painless, too, since the barrier to entry for Java programmers is so low. And part of the reason that programmers are switching is strictly financial. "Microsoft's fervor to push this into the market could create plenty of business on it," says a programmer friend of mine who seems to prefer odd syntax. "They are cool with losing money I'd think to get this entrenched. Them losing money means little guys like me pick it up."

End of story.

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