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Carbonite a guinea pig for Sun's Java "app store"?

Carbonite made a big splash in the consumer space this week with the announcement that Sun Microsystems Inc. (soon to become part of Oracle Corp.) will offer a free 30-day trial of its online backup service to Sun customers who upgrade to the latest version of Java or download it for the first time.

Java’s about the most ubiquitous Web interface in the consumer world, so it’s a pretty major coup for Carbonite in its quest to compete with much bigger companies in online backup like Symantec and EMC Mozy. Carbonite’s press release puts Java’s reach at 800 million personal computers.

It’s unclear what proportion of that number is represented by Sun’s direct Java share, since Java is licensed by a number of third-party companies who develop their own custom code. But since Java prompts users for updates automatically, without them seeking out the service, it seems like it should be a pretty effective tool for putting Carbonite in front of users, whether or not they actually take the offer. (One aside here as a PC user myself – the constant “Java update available” reminders are annoying enough. If I have to click through multiple advertisements on my way to installing them, I can see getting very annoyed very quickly…so, of course, it all depends on the consumer response).

It’s an interesting distribution model for Carbonite,” said Forrester Research analyst Stephanie Balaouras. “It’s not clear how it benefits Sun technically, I’m sure there’s a monetary benefit.”

But this is where things get really interesting – in the course of my conversation with Balaouras I ran across a post on Jonathan Schwartz’s blog discussing a new plan to offer an “app store” in association with Java (if that name sounds familiar, it’s because of Apple’s already-popular App Store service for the iPhone and iPod Touch).

According to Schwartz:

…not all Java runtimes are the same. For most devices, from RIM’s Blackberry to Sony’s Blu-Ray DVD players, original equipment manufacturers (known as “OEM’s”) license core Java technology and brand from Sun, and build their own Java runtime. Although we’re moving to help OEM’s with more pre-built technology, the only runtimes currently that come direct from Sun are those running on Windows PC’s.

And oddly enough, that’s made the Windows Java runtime our most profitable Java platform…a few years ago, we called our friends at one of the world’s largest search companies (you can guess who), to talk about helping them with software distribution – because of Java’s ubiquity, we had a greater capacity than almost anyone to distribute software to the Windows installed base. We signed a contract through which we’d make their toolbar optionally available to our audience via the Java update mechanism. They paid us a much appreciated fee, which increased dramatically when we renegotiated the contract a year later. 

The post, which is about two months old and written in anticipation of the JavaOne conference in June, goes on to announce a new business model being pursued by Sun:

The revenues to Sun were also getting big enough for us to think about building a more formal business around Java’s distribution power – to make it available to the entire Java community, not simply one or two search companies on yearly contracts.

And that’s what Project Vector is designed to deliver – Vector is a network service to connect companies of all sizes and types to the roughly one billion Java users all over the world. Vector (which we’ll likely rename the Java Store), has the potential to deliver the world’s largest audience to developers and businesses leveraging Java and JavaFX.

“Everyone.” Schwartz points out, “craves access to consumers.” Particularly in the storage and storage software-as-a-service (SaaS) markets, where consumers are the focus of growth.

Control over Java has been considered the primary focus of Oracle’s intention to acquire Sun. It’s hard to imagine Sun doing any deal right now that didn’t meet with Oracle’s approval, but stranger things have happened… “This seems opportunistic, not a strategic alignment with one online backup vendor over another,” pointed out Balaouras. “It’s also a consumer, SMB play. I’m not sure how much Oracle will care at the moment.”

But if Carbonite can be distributed to consumers through Java, so could virtually any other online backup and storage service. And Schwartz’s post about Project Vector and the partnerships with search engines show Sun is willing to acquiesce to the highest bidder:

The year following [the initial search engine toolbar deal], the revenue increased dramatically again – when an aspiring search company (again, you can figure out who) outbid our first partner to place their toolbar in front of Java users (this time, limited to the US only). Toolbars, it turns out, are a significant driver of search traffic – and the billions of Java runtimes in the market were a clear means of driving value and opportunity.

It will be interesting to see if Carbonite’s competitors make any counter-moves. It will also be interesting to see how significant a channel to market Sun’s Java becomes for cloud storage vendors – could Sun have a last laugh in storage after all?

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