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Monday, September 16, 1996

By Ira Sager in Somers, N.Y.
Business Week
Information Processing

How did IBM become a Java devotee? Java fever started in mid-1995 among IBM researchers. Word of the new technology from Sun Microsystems Inc. started to spread after a software expert found that by using Java he could write one version of an IBM computer language that ran on many operating systems, so he didn’t have to rewrite it for each. Soon, IBM researchers saw that Java also might help them to solve one of their most pressing problems: getting all IBM’s incompatible computer lines to work together–and with other computer brands–on networks, including the Internet.

It didn’t take long for the message to move from research to the top reaches of IBM management, where CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. was gearing up for a network push. By September, he had been briefed by Sun President Scott G. McNealy, and soon after, IBM became one of the first licensees for Java. While the computer industry buzzed about how miniprograms, known as Java “applets,” would soon be zipping across the Net, IBM focused on how the new technology could bring all sorts of existing computers into the networked world.

In November, Senior Vice-President John M. Thompson, IBM’s top software exec, called Eric Schmidt, Sun’s chief technology officer. An excited Thompson, Schmidt recalls, said: “There are even bigger opportunities than you guys think.” For example, Java could pave the way to electronic commerce by tapping into existing corporate databases.

CRACKING THE VAULT. Soon after that call, the two companies broadened their fresh new relationship to include all sorts of collaborative efforts aimed at using Java to pry data from mainframes for wide commercial use. IBM is working with Sun Microsystems to speed the performance of Java, developing tools for writing more software for Java, and building a library of Java programs to provide access to IBM mainframe databases. At IBM’s lab in Hursley, England, a whole new unit has been established that is devoted to Java research.

By the end of this year, IBM plans to have Java built into all its major operating systems–from PCs to mainframes. Eventually, says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, general manager of IBM’s Internet Div., every one of the company’s applications will use Java. “IBM’s commitment to Java is second only to Sun’s,” says Merrill Lynch & Co. analyst Bruce D. Smith. “They view Java as a potent wedge into Microsoft’s Windows architecture.”

Just how far Big Blue can drive into Microsoft territory remains to be seen. But in the next few weeks, the company will begin its push with a Java version of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 3.1 operating system that the company claims will be ideal for helping desktop computers retrieve data from mainframes. “We are going to be the people to bring Java to your desktop, not Microsoft,” says David N. Gee, IBM’s Java marketing manager. If he can deliver on that boast, IBM may yet see its Net dreams come true.

By Ira Sager in Somers, N.Y.

Copyright 1996 The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved. Any use is subject to (1) terms and conditions of this service and (2) rules stated under “Read This First” in the “About Business Week” area.