There is growing concern among high-tech companies like Microsoft that the international standards process can't develop and approve standards fast enough to keep up with a constantly changing technology field.

The companies also worry whether current practices adequately address the issue of how to handle intellectual property and patent rights when developing and maintaining a standard.

Microsoft in particular has questioned whether one company should be allowed to act as a submitter for a standard, given the overwhelming market implications of such an action.

All of these issues, and more, have surfaced in the ongoing dispute over whether the Java Platform Specifications should become an international standard.

Sun Microsystems is the creator of the Java platform, which has become the basis for the development of independent codes or applications that can be read on any computer system. Java is the most commonly used computer language on the Internet.

Last November, the battle to make Java platform specifications an international standard moved into round two, following approval of Sun Microsystems as the standards submitter to the International Organization for Standardization in Geneva.

Sun Microsystems won the right to become a standards submitter over fierce protests and what some hailed as mud-slinging from competitors like Microsoft, Intel and Digital Equipment Corp. These companies argued against the idea of a single company serving as standards submitter.

Sun Microsystems, in turn, has deflected attention away from worldwide concerns over its standards proposal by charging that Microsoft is trying to put it out of business. Sun Microsystems sees this battle not merely as a standardization issue, but as a matter of the company's survival.

''This is a strategic issue,'' says Jim Mitchell, vice president of technology and architecture at JavaSoft, a division of Sun Microsystems. ''If Microsoft hijacks Java, they'll lock Java into their platform and we're out of business.''



Taking defensive measures against Microsoft is only one reason Sun Microsystems is pursuing international standardization of Java. There are also enormous marketing implications at stake for the company.

For example, if the Java platform is accepted as the international norm, Mr. Mitchell says, it will become tied into the government procurement process, making it a de facto requirement for doing business in the United States.

Despite such advantages, Sun Microsystems may have to cede over its intellectual property and patent rights to Java if it wants to make the platform an international standard.

Then there's the question of whether the ISO will allow the company sole control of maintaining the standard as technological changes in the Java platform force revisions to the standard.

These are some of the main issues Sun Microsystems faces as it moves into the two-year standards development process. That process will culminate in a full vote by the ISO membership if the submission is made.

Not surprisingly, these are the very issues Microsoft has pushed during the debate over whether Sun Microsystems could be what ISO calls a Publicly Available Specification submitter.



Charles Fitzgerald, group program manager at Microsoft and a prime player during round one of the Publicly Available Specification submitter debate, argues that what is at stake with the Java issue is the value of the international standards process itself.

Microsoft, he says, may choose to cease its involvement in the international standards process if the company feels there is no value in participating.

''Microsoft isn't only concerned about the particulars of this particular issue, but the precedent taking place in the international standards system,'' he said.

''If they're going to be in the business of endorsing arbitrary random products, we'll re-evaluate the amount of time we spend in the international standards arena. We'll just build great products. It's not clear the value this international standards body provides.''

George Willingmyre of GTW Associates and a part-time standards strategist for Microsoft, says: ''The outcome of negotiations and JTC1 (ISO's working committee for high technology) and this company (Sun Microsystems) will define the future credibility of the international standards system.''

Both he and Mr. Fitzgerald argue that there are many paths to establishing standards in the global market.

''We know how to compete in the world of 'de facto' standards. We also know how to participate and compete in the de jure standards world of ISO,'' said Mr. Willingmyre. ''We are trying to say to Sun, 'Pick your forum and we'll meet you there. But if you are going to use the ISO system, then you must not propose to retain proprietary control of the process.' ''

Mr. Fitzgerald agrees that it doesn't hurt Microsoft to return to the computer model with proprietary technology and competitive pressures to drive it forward.

''That model has worked phenomenally well for consumers, and it's the model Microsoft used for Windows,'' he said.

The problem with the Java process, to date, is that ''Sun has been clever in using the PAS process to get the sanction of ISO (for its product), while keeping full proprietary control,'' Mr. Fitzgerald says.

''Why do we care? There is a potential marketing advantage for a competitor. ISO is getting in the business of endorsing proprietary technology.''



ISO officials have issued no formal response to attacks on the way it organizes the international standards process that it represents.

Asked for an opinion on the Java platform debate, the ISO press office faxed back background information on the PAS process.

ANSI has been only slightly less reticent. Michael Hoynes, vice president of marketing and communication at ANSI, submitted the following statement in response to queries about ANSI's role in urging Sun Microsystems to submit the Java platform as an international standard:

''ANSI, as the national body responsible for facilitating the U.S. voluntary standards consensus standards system, welcomes and encourages any organization, company or individual to utilize the voluntary consensus standards system to achieve their objectives.

''Once the organization, company or individual makes the decision to utilize the system, ANSI staff will provide all the appropriate assistance in following the procedures and guidelines of the process, and when required, help explore acceptable alternatives.

''ANSI welcomes every business sector to utilize the voluntary standards system and is prepared to help facilitate the process.''