In a tough competitive market one of the biggest challenges vendors face is what message to put around their product to distinguish it from their competitor's. The question of which features to focus on is a tough call. The dilemma is paradoxical. With the emphasis on standards, all vendors need to comply with published standards. However, this levels the playing field and leaves very little room for vendors to highlight the functionality that can distinguish them from others. Hence, each vendor needs to provide value-added features that attract clients to their fare.
Lowering prices is one such way to provide the differentiator. However, this may end up being a double-edged sword. If the product is too cheap, or open-source, folks are often put off as they associate quality with price. Regarding standards compliance, one differentiator for vendors is temporal - how fast can you comply?
In the realm of J2EE application servers, standards compliance is given ample attention. After all J2EE is really a set of standards. The reference implementation from Sun is just that - for reference. Application server vendors develop implementations of the standard APIs, tag on their add-on bits, and make the resulting product available to the general J2EE community.
Recently I read a quote saying that Java was dying because vendors add proprietary extensions to the standards. I fail to see the connection. In fact, since vendors provide value-add and there's a need for value-added features, the Java market is growing. On the other hand, the J2EE standards base is also growing, so the need to comply with the latest versions of the standards is crucial for the application server vendors to gain the lead in market share. If a vendor is the first to provide a platform complying with the latest standard, you can bet the corresponding Web site will declare this with much pomp and show and you'll see qualifiers like "the first and only..." or words to that effect describing the latest product release.
A testimony to the importance attached to being the first in a compliance race is the recent JDJ Industry News story on the race for J2EE 1.3 compatibility between the big dogs - BEA and IBM - and a small vendor - Pramati (www.sys-con.com/java/articlenews.cfm?id=1263). Pramati is a not a market leader in the J2EE application server space, but its recent announcement about being the first vendor to achieve J2EE 1.3 compatibility has made some waves. Soon after Pramati staked a claim on being the first, IBM came out with its own announcement about WebSphere. IBM's announcement leverages their second-place finish as a feather in their hat when compared with BEA, the current market leader in the J2EE space. Remember how BEA had claimed EJB 2.0 compatibility to do the same?
IBM had mistakenly claimed first place. Refuting this has given Pramati more attention (as they are a much smaller player) than the original claim itself. The first spot is more critical for Pramati than for IBM, which already claims 34% of the market share. Pramati Technologies (www.pramati.com) operates out of San Jose, CA, and New York here in the U.S. and has been developing J2EE technology from Hyderabad, India. With Pramati Server 3.0, Pramati hopes to succeed in the mid-market by leveraging the compatibility issue with the low cost of its server as compared to IBM (WebSphere), BEA (WebLogic), and Sun (iPlanet).
Realistically, the issue of who achieved compatibility first doesn't make that much of a difference, as long as the time difference between certifications is not in the scale of several months. If this is so, the application server vendor who is late to the race will have a pretty tough time reestablishing themselves. Compatibility is the bare minimum requirement to stay in the race. However, the quality of the server is what will ultimately decide the success of the product. The good thing about compatibility certification is that it helps separate the men from the boys.
Ajit Sagar is the J2EE editor of JDJ and the
founding editor and editor-in-chief of XML-Journal.
A lead architect with Innovatem, based in Dallas, he's
well versed in Java, Web, and XML technologies.