Microsoft Tries to Decaffeinate the Web

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It's unbelievable. It's unconscionable. I've been decaffeinated, and I didn't even know about it.

What am I talking about? I'm talking about the fact that Windows XP, the next generation PC operating system which just entered its penultimate testing phase, has had its Java removed. Java is the plug-and-play web application that works on any machine. It is the code behind most of the animation on tens of thousands of websites out there. It is what, for many years, made the American flag flutter at, and examples don't get much more patriotic than that.

Java is wholly owned, licensed and developed by Scott McNealy's Sun Microsystems, which just happens to be Bill Gates' nemesis. Microsoft and Sun had a little falling out a few years back when Microsoft tried to create what became known as a "polluted" version of Java, or one that Microsoft hoped it would soon be able to license itself (and leverage its Windows/Explorer monopoly in the hope of making programmers sign up for it). Not surprisingly, McNealy took Gates to court. The latter lost, and it cost the world's richest man a cool $20 million.

Pocket change. But in a fit of pique, it seems the bespectacled one has decided to toss Java out of the Window(s) altogether.

On Tuesday I was playing around with the latest beta version of XP on my home machine. I'd tried it before (see columns passim) only to scramble for the deinstall button when it caused a dozen different conflicts. But this time, after 24 hours of tweaking, it worked. I finally had a stable Windows environment that refused to crash on me. I was just ogling the cool blue taskbar and gorgeous 3D icons the afternoon Microsoft announced — very, very quietly — that there would be no Java support built into XP. When the final version is launched, if you really truly want to use Java you'll have to go to, download a patch and alter the security settings of Explorer. Not too difficult for true believers, but way too much effort for the average user who thinks more about java at Starbucks than when he's sitting in front of a PC.

I found it hard to credit, until I visited Sun's Java page — and sure enough, the spinning test molecule was not there. Okay, so Java won't become the default cross-platform operating system McNealy envisioned any time soon, but we're still talking a great big chunk of the web. How does Microsoft hope to get away with this?

No doubt Redmond hopes in this case, as with so much else, that the world will simply revolve around it. Webmasters will notice the sudden disappearance of Java support, and quickly ditch the jewel in Sun's crown and start using XML, which forms the basis of Microsoft's .Net software. Much the same thing is happening with the XP version of Windows Media Player, which Microsoft has just announced will support the MP3 format — as long as you download a plug-in and pay an extra $15 for the privilege, that is. Otherwise, all your WMP digital music will be in Microsoft's proprietary format.

In last week's column I wrote about how I was dissuaded from Mac OS X largely because of the arrogance of Apple. Well, Microsoft is just in a whole other universe of arrogance. Don't even get me started on its .Net and Passport strategies (that's another article altogether). But remember, we're talking about kinder, gentler Microsofties, at least compared with the pre-antitrust trial version. Then they were viciously monopolistic. Now, they're just plain sneaky, and they're trying to fly under your radar. My advice: don't let them.

If there's one thing the whole Smart Tags debacle taught us, it's that the new and improved Microsoft is prepared to retreat at the first whiff of consumer backlash. So if you care at all about the right of web designers to use whatever language they like without fear of users being blocked from seeing their efforts, write Microsoft and let them know you'll be thinking twice about purchasing XP. After all, it's a pretty dreary world without a regular shot of Java.