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Why Microsoft Loves Google's Android

Google's Android As Currently Defined Is a Fork of the Java ME Platform

You won't hear Microsoft say this out loud, but secretly they are celebrating Google's contribution of the Android mobile phone platform to the Open Handset Alliance. At least they ought to be. Android is perhaps the best thing to happen to Microsoft since they won the browser wars in the 1990s.

And given  Verizon's announcement yesterday that they will be opening up their network to any device and operating system that meets a "minimum technical standard" it seems that Android  may  have legs even if Google doesn't secure the 700 MHz spectrum.

Microsoft's biggest competitor in the software development industry has been, for the past 12 years, Sun Microsystems' Java Platform.  Starting in the mid to late 1990s Java began to gain mind share among developers in every area in which Microsoft has an interest. Today, with over 6 million developers (according to Sun) Java clearly dominates the software development industry.  Point in fact, Microsoft had to completely revamp their software development platform in 2000 to mimic the Java platform in order to complete; enter Microsoft .NET.  While Microsoft .NET has been extremely successful at winning back a portion of the developer community from the Java platform, Java has remained the darling of the enterprise and perhaps the most successful software development platform in the history of computing. Microsoft really doesn't like the Java platform very much. Java is Microsoft's  biggest competitor and is arguably the platform to beat.

The Java platform and its standardization process is not perfect. A series of missteps by Sun Microsystems and the Java Community Process (JCP) have contributed to the growing success of Microsoft .NET. The JCP which defines the Java standards has allowed the enterprise platform, Java EE, to become unbearably complex and has created an ecosystem for its mobile platform, Java ME, that is terribly fragmented despite its overwhelming penetration (8 out of 10 phones ship with Java). The foundational platform, Java SE, however has remained a strong competitor and has given up very little ground to Microsoft, but all that is about to change with the introduction of Google's Android mobile platform.

To put it bluntly, Android as it is currently defined is a fork of the Java ME platform. Android is similar to the Java ME, but it's a non-conformant implementation.  Android is not compliant with Java ME nor is it compliant with Java SE. In fact, it’s not really Java. Although it uses the Java programming language, the core APIs and the virtual machine are not consistent with the Java ME or SE platform - its a fork. This was first pointed out by Stefano Mazzocchi in his November 12th Blog entry entitled "Dalvik: how Google routed around Sun's IP-based licensing restrictions on Java ME". Stefano missed the fact that Android does not properly implement the CDC or CLDC Java ME APIs ( a minimum requirement for Java ME conformance) - but kudos to him for being the first to report on the fork. The fork has since been picked up in the blogsphere by others here, here and elsewhere.

The forking of Java is good news for Microsoft for a couple of reasons. First, from a marketing perspective the Java platform's greatest strength is standardization and multi-vendor (e.g. IBM, Oracle, SAP, etc.) support. In comparison, Microsoft .NET is a portrayed as a proprietary platform that locks-in organizations to the Microsoft platform. That's the marketing message which has been used by Java proponents for a decade and it has been extremely successful. But now, with the introduction of Android, the solidarity around the Java platform could crumble.  If Android, as it’s currently defined, is successful then Java will no longer be consistently implemented at a fundamental level.

Microsoft offers an excellent mobile platform of its own, Windows Mobile and Microsoft .NET Compact Framework. It's proprietary, that's true, but it’s consistently implemented and extremely powerful platform for developing Rich Mobile Applications (RMAs).  In comparison, Java ME is a standard that has a wealth of functionality and is supported by dozens of vendors, but its implemented inconsistently across mobile devices making it extremely difficult to develop applications that will "write once, run anywhere". If Android succeeds (time will tell) then Java on mobile devices will loose its hold on the market. Android may win, but Java ME will loose.  If I was on the Windows Mobile and .NET CF marketing department I would be popping the cork on a huge bottle of Champaign the day Android is released. It's the best thing that could have happened to Microsoft's mobile platform.

OK, so if the Java mobile platform will falter because of the introduction Android, how does that impact Java SE? After all, Java SE is used for desktop and server-side development. How is that threatened by a mobile platform? Good question. Here's why: Sun has been moving toward unifying the Java ME and Java SE platforms for a while now.  This was pointed out in an excellent analysis by Caroline Gabriel of Rethink Research. As part of the evidence for her argument Caroline references a quote from James Gosling the "father" in a CNET interview just last month. 

"We're trying to converge everything to the Java SE specification. Cell phones and TV set-top boxes are growing up," Gosling said at a Java media event here Wednesday. "That convergence is going to take years."

But don't take James Gosling's word for just take a look at JavaFX Mobile, which Sun Microsystems announced earlier this year. It's based on the full Java SE platform, not Java ME. In a nutshell Sun Microsystems isn't betting on Java ME for the long-hall, they are betting on Java SE.  After all, Java ME was developed for "constrained devices" with limited memory and processing power. However, as technology advances that label no longer applies to mobile phones in general. Smartphones are becoming powerful, if smaller, computers with complete operating systems, lots of processing power and plenty of memory. The era when mobile phones are simple appliances is coming to an end - mobile phones are becoming a complete computing platform.

The reason a phase out of Java ME and the extension of Java SE to mobile is so important to Sun Microsystems, is that it meets Sun’s original goal for Java. It establishes a single platform for all computing devices. It makes excellent sense and improves the argument that Java is a standard consistently implemented across computing platforms. Sadly, however, by the time that happens Android may have already Balkanized the mobile Java community into Java ME and Android camps.  The  “one platform to bind them all” party may be over before it gets started.

Assuming the demise of Java ME as a standard platform for mobile development is nearing and that Java SE will take its place, the question of a consistent platform across all computing devices becomes even more important.  How do you sell people on Java?  You tell them that it’s a standard used across mobile, desktop, and server applications.  You tell people that the skills your enterprise developers gain writing desktop and server-side applications will translate directly to the mobile platform. 

Unfortunately Android undoes that. It tells the industry that Java is not consistent across computing platforms and that using the Java language, but not the APIs or virtual machine is just fine as long as the end result is a workable solution.  That leads us to the assumption that if it works for the mobile industry than why not the desktop or the server-side? Why can't other vendors introduce platforms that use the Java programming language and some of the Java APIs, but is otherwise inconsistent with the Java platform? What's the harm of IBM or Oracle having their own version of Java as long as it works?  You'll find the answer to that question in historical records when when Sun Microsystems successfully stopped Microsoft from adding proprietary extensions to the Java platform in the 1990's. As pointed out by Maureen O'Gara there is some irony here. 

“The sweet irony is that this greatest threat to Java since Microsoft should come from Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the guy who originally led Java development at Sun and signed the contract with Microsoft, leading to the Java wars.”

Java's greatest strength today is uniformity and ubiquity. Take away uniformity and you end up with many different kinds of Java and so there is no real ubiquity. Take away ubiquity and there is very little incentive to choose the Java platform over other options like Microsoft .NET. In fact, Microsoft .NET starts looking a lot more attractive because it is consistently implemented; not Balkanized. If .NET is just as powerful as Java, why choose a solution such as Java that is inconsistently implemented across vendors?  The strongest marketing asset that Java has today, "write once, run anywhere" standardization, is effectively lost.

More Stories By Richard Monson-Haefel

Richard Monson-Haefel, an award-winning author and technical analyst, owns Richard Monson-Haefel Consulting. Formerly he was VP of Developer Relations at Curl Inc. and before that a Senior Analyst at The Burton Group. He was the lead architect of OpenEJB, an open source EJB container used in Apache Geronimo, a member of the JCP Executive Committee, member of JCP EJB expert groups, and an industry analyst for Burton Group researching enterprise computing, open source, and Rich Internet Application (RIA) development.

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