Java vs. .NET: How Companies Make the Call

When choosing a set of tools and technologies to write business applications, which matters more to a typical information technology manager: (A) a magical encounter with Bill Gates at a trade show a decade ago, or (B) a terrific deal on the latest development suite?

If you answered “A,” you’re not alone—although you may be unusually honest. Few project leaders publicly admit it, but gut feelings and corporate politics still drive many a purchase decision when it comes to software platforms. It matters little that choosing a development platform determines much of your company’s future spending on information technology. Choices still are often based more on intangibles than return on investment.

This dirty little secret holds true whether companies are developing a client/server application, a distributed Web-interfaced application or a next-generation Web service. Market studies, CIO surveys and developer polls that tout the technical superiority of Microsoft .NET over Java (or vice versa) rarely change minds of companies already committed to a platform.

Instead, the make-or-break platform decision still often comes down to a Microsoft or “ABM” (anyone but Microsoft) choice. And the much-ballyhooed efforts by software vendors to woo developers from Visual Basic or other Microsoft development products to Java (or vice versa) isn’t winning many new converts.

“The ability to work with and trust your vendor is the overriding concern,” says Eric Blankenburg, director of engineering with Avanade, a technology consultancy in which Microsoft is a joint partner. Whether that decision is made irrationally or rationally, the perceptions management and staff have about a software vendor and its products often cannot be overestimated—or overruled.

Continental Airlines, for instance, made a choice in the mid-1990s to go with an array of Microsoft products—Visual Studio developer tool suite, SQL Server database and Windows operating system, and never looked back.

Even when designing new Web-services-style applications, Continental didn’t return to square one and perform a .NET vs. Java ROI analysis. With so many Microsoft products already in-house, choosing to use Microsoft’s tools was a no-brainer, says Ferdy Khater, Continental’s director of technology.

Companies have made and are continuing to make similar choices on the Java side, too. Retailer Home Depot has been a Java shop since 1997, says Curtis Chambers, senior manager of information services. As the company developed new client/server and Web-based applications over time, it stuck with Java and didn’t even give Microsoft a look.”Eleven years ago, we decided to be a Unix shop, and now have four Unix servers and two different (Unix) flavors,” says Chambers. Since Java was hatched in the Unix world, “that’s why we opted for Java,” Chambers notes. “It was a pretty easy choice to make.”