There Was A Time When Microsoft, Sun Battled For The Handheld Market

Moving beyond desktop computers and network servers, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems at one point had found a new battleground: the portable consumer electronics market.

The CEOs of both companies made statements at the late 90’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas that was remarkably similar in scope regarding the future of their technologies for the wireless device market.

bill gates mobile phones

“People want information everywhere they go. … You will see a number of devices come along that tie this information together with the desktop PC. None of them will survive if they are stand-alone.” –

-Bill Gates

Rather than Solaris and Windows NT, the weapons in this market included Sun’s PersonalJava and Microsoft’s Win CE. Both companies where using their respective operating systems to make data even more readily available to people on the go.

“People want information everywhere they go. They want it on a small device; they want it in the car, or with their wireless telephone,” Bill Gates said. “You will see a number of devices come along that tie this information together with the desktop PC. None of them will survive if they are stand-alone.”

At the CES show in 1998, Microsoft showed it had more of a lead. Although both Sun and Microsoft announced deals to install their software in TCI’s set-top boxes, Microsoft also demonstrated the AutoPC — an in-dash system that runs on voice recognition to perform tasks such as dialing a cell phone, reading e-mail, and voice-activating global-positioning satellite systems.

Gates also once announced a deal with Motorola to include Win CE in an array of wireless devices.

What the two companies where seeking to do was add capabilities to common devices to get around the technophobia that keeps some consumers from buying PCs.

“The computer should be something you don’t know you’re using,” said Sun CEO Scott McNealy. “We’re taking that which is familiar and making it more capable.”

Sun’s strategy was to use Java, which is, or at least tries to be, platform-independent. Microsoft’s strategy was to support a number of portable, low-voltage devices.

The PersonalJava 1.0 platform was a subset of the full Java language designed specifically for building network applications. It included the Java Application Environment for creating applications and the Personal WebAccess browser.

Win CE, on the other hand, was a new OS designed from the ground up for embedded systems. It looked similar to Win 95, but has little in common with the desktop OS. Data can be entered using pen-like stylus, and it recognizes handwriting, in addition to tapping out characters on a keyboard displayed on the screen.

The embedded market was foreign territory for both companies, but less so for Microsoft, according to Rob Enderle, a senior analyst with Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif. “It’s really way outside Sun’s model,” Enderle said. “They’re selling high-end workstations.”

What it will came down to was which system would be easier to develop on. “Both of them, to do what it is they’re going to do, are going to have to be relatively highly customized,” said Enderle. That devalues the open aspect of PersonalJava, while Microsoft’s development power gives it an advantage, he added.

Being a hardware vendor may be a liability for Sun, if it scares off potential OEM partners. Support from Intel and Motorola, along with being closer to the embedded systems market, would put Microsoft in a better position to win the battle for handheld devices.

Microsoft’s biggest liability was at one time its fight with the federal government over antitrust issues.

But as we fast forward to 2013, we now see Microsoft way down in third place, and well Sun is pretty much now out of the mobile market, these two companies at one point had a real opportunity to solidify their foot print in the smartphone market but bad decisions cost them big time.