NICHE CONSTRUCTION STRATEGIES IN TECHNOLOGICAL DOMINATION: CASE
OF JAVA RECONSIDERED
Pavel Luksha, University of Hertfordshire, UK
The paper examines the creation and maintenance of sponsored technological standards as the
template for industry architecture. Following the call of paper by Jacobides and co-authors
(2005) the paper examines pro-active organizational strategies that establish industry
architectures. The concept of niche construction is introduced, as the pro-active strategy that
transforms or creates organizational niches, a strategy for ‘setting rules of the game’. The
paper reconsiders the case of Java technological dominance (Garud et al., 2002) to highlight
the difference between the more conventional view of the standard dynamics as ‘the battle of
systems’, and the concept of niche construction. It is shown that niche construction strategies
are important for creating and maintaining the dominance of sponsored standard; in
particular, in the ‘open control’ and in ‘open source’ communities, the focal organization
utilizes niche construction strategies to maintain the legitimacy of its central position within
the community, and to enhance its value capture opportunities.
Keywords: platform leadership, niche construction, industry architecture
Technological standards are “codified specifications that detail the form and function of
individual components and the rules of engagement among them.” (Garud et al., 2002: 6?)
Modern technologies are sophisticated and intertwined, therefore the ‘rules of engagement’,
the way things are made compatible, becomes critical (Garud, Kumaraswamy, 1993;
Sanchez, 1995; Schilling, 2000). Compatibility makes standardization social beneficial, as it
permits the production of complimentary products (whereby technological standards serves
as guidelines), the economies of scale in production (especially in production of components
and raw materials), and the increasing returns for technology users (e.g. the access to user
support, to complimentary services, to user-made complimentary products etc.) (Teece, 1986;
Arthur, 1989; Schilling, 2002)
The rise of a technological standard to its dominance is envisaged as a complex self-
organization process (Rosenkopf, Tushman, 1998). On the other hand, so-called sponsored
technologies are rendered by companies into dominance, using a range of available leverages
(Suarez, 2004; Iyer, Davenport, 2008). By successful shaping of common standards.
organizations can obtain significant competitive benefits (Hamel, Prahalad, 1994). The
emergence of a dominant technological standard in the course of rivalry between several
technological products or processes is a well-studied phenomenon (Abernathy, Utterback
1978; Suarez, 2004). The literature on sponsored technological standards, accordingly, is
focused on the ‘battling’ aspect, the rivalry between major players, their strategic plots, their
assaults on each other’s market position, and so forth.
The recent studies interpret dominant technological standards as a type of the ‘industry
architecture’ arising through series of strategic moves and coevolutionary interactions. The
industry architecture is envisaged as the range of interfaces to coordinate the division of
labor: “the structure of cospecialized agents and assets … determining the nested structures
of industry organization” (Jacobides et al., 2006: 1202). The notion of industry architecture
underlines the harmonizing aspect of technological dominance. Most importantly, industry
architectures are partially dependent on pro-active agency of organizations in their
environments, such as branding or lobbying. These activities are not aimed at rivals – rather,
their aim is to guide the emergence of the company-specific ecosystem.
The goal of the present paper is to consider strategies by which focal organizations are able to
guide dynamics within the coevolutionary emerging ecosystems of dominant standards.
Rather than the rivalry ‘game according to the rules’, such strategies aim at changing rules of
The inspiration of the present paper is derived from the evolutionary theory. The theory of
biological evolution has been for a long time dominated by approaches that stressed
adaptation and selection as main drivers of evolutionary processes. These approaches
emphasized the unidirectional causal power of the environment, forcing evolving entities to
‘climb’ fitness landscape peaks as they evolve, and implying disruptions to the fitness
landscape are exogenous. Yet, in recent years, it has been recognized that evolving entities,
too, can play a remarkable role in modifying fitness landscapes, as they change their habitats.
In the spirit of generic evolutionary approaches in organizational and management theory
(Campbell, 1969; McKelvey, 1982; Aldrich, Ruef, 2006), it is suggested that the idea of
niche construction may provide useful insights for the dynamics of organizational and
entrepreneurial strategies. In particular, it may help to recognize how competitive
imperfections can emerge within industries and markets, as a process governed by the focal
organization or entrepreneur. The central role of communicative strategies in the
transformation of environment is emphasized, and, in particular, the importance of
educational efforts of organization in governed opportunity creation is suggested.
In order to show how the concept of niche construction can illuminate the studies of
technological standards, it has been decided to re-consider one of the earlier case studies on
The case of the sponsorship of Java platform, which includes Java language and other
software components, has been documented in detail by Garud, Jain, and Kamaraswamy
(2002). It has been decided to extend the presentation of the case over a larger period of time:
the cited paper considers the timespan of 1995-2000, whereas the present paper extends the
timeframe to 2008. Second, unlike the cited paper which focuses on the competitive
interactions of the focal organization with its rivals, the present paper emphasizes niche
constructing activities within the coevolutionary dynamics that harmonize interactions of the
organization with constituents in its ecosystem.
The aim of returning to a case that has been already described in detail is to reconsider it,
which acts as a repetitive experiment in strategy studies. Since every case study is post-hoc
description of the flow of events, it is a sensemaking process (Weick, 1995) largely influence
by the use of the chosen theoretical framework. Therefore, reconsideration using additional
theoretical concepts can highlight elements of the strategy that were downplayed in the
The rest of the paper is organized as following. Section 2 considers the range of approaches
to the process of technological dominance, including the ‘industry architecture’ perspective.
Section 3 introduces the concept of niche construction as a type of (co)evolutionary
dynamics. Section 4 presents the case of Java sponsorship, with a timeline from the platform
creation to 2008. Section 5 discusses the difference between interpretation suggested in the
paper of Garud, Jain, and Kamaraswamy (2002), and the interpretation suggested by the
concept of niche construction. Section 6 concludes the paper.
TECHNOLOGICAL STANDARDS: FACTORS OF DOMINANCE
Compatibility is critical for the emergence of a standard. However, compatibility means that
existing and potential rivals, suppliers, consumers, providers of complimentary goods,
providers of infrastructure etc. must agree upon common rules of interaction. This is a task of
mutual adjustment that requires adaptation of workflow process, organizational structure,
regulatory documentation and steering mechanisms within each of interacting players
(Anderson, Tushman, 1990; Rosenkopf, Tushman, 1998). These adjustments occur on
different levels of industrial hierarchy, suggesting the multi-level coevolutionary process in
which nested hierarchies of technology cycles are adjusted to each other or selected by each
other (Murrman, Tushman, 1998).
The emergence of technological dominance has been explained by heterogeneity in firm
performance (Prahalad, Hamel, 1994; Suarez, Utterback, 1995; Shapiro, Varian, 1999), and
by the density and entry/exit rates (Rosenkopf, Tushman, 1998; Hunt, Aldrich, 1998; Wade,
1995), and by shifts in the industry structure (Langlois, Robertson, 1992; Klepper, 1996;
Langlois, 2004). In industries with significant network effects, exogenous factors play
important role in the rise of technological standards, and sometimes even minor exogenous
impacts can lock-in the industry with a particular standard (Arthur, 1989). However, the
dynamics is also to a large extent driven by endogenous forces, such as firm-level capabilities
Suarez (2004) lists the range of factors that may influence the probability of technological
domination. These factors are broadly grouped into firm-level and environment factors. The
firm-level factors include (a) technological superiority of the firm (compared to its rivals), (b)
control over complimentary assets (including non-tangible assets, e.g. past experience,
reputation etc.), (c) size of the installation base, and (d) various types of strategic
manoeuvring against rivals. The environment factors include (a) (favourable or unfavourable)
legislation (e.g. regime of intellectual property rights protection), (b) network effect (e.g. the
benefit of using same software) and switching costs (e.g. the cost of re-learning), (c)
capturing opportunities, or rents of ecosystem participants (the factor also known as the value
capture), and (d) structure of technological field (the set of factors characterizing the
distribution of power, possibilities of inter-organizational cooperation, etc.).
The large set of firm-level variables can largely be controlled, as well as some of the
environment-level variables; therefore, the technological domination is not wholly random,
nor beyond the firm’s control (Schilling, 1998; Shapiro, Varian, 1999). Organizations are
often able to appropriate high returns from owning or controlling the dominant standard
(Hamel, Prahalad, 1994). Thus, they engage themselves with technology sponsorship. Their
strategic goal is achieved by pursuing several tasks. The organization has to establish and
maintain a base of loyal users and suppliers of complimentary products and services. It has to
face the existing rivals (industry incumbents) directly and indirectly, to diminish their user
base by encouraging and facilitating the switch. Finally, it has to convince potential rivals
(potential entrants) to support the standard instead of competing with the focal organization
(Garud et al., 2002).
Cases of technological sponsorship have been studied by several authors, and include the
sponsorship of 33 1/3 rpm music recording technology by Columbia (Langlois, Robertson,
1992), the sponsorship of VHS videocassette recording technology by JVC (Hariharan, 1990;
Cusumano, Mylonadis, Rosenbloom, 1992), the sponsorship of Java platform by Sun (Garud
et al., 2002), and the range of sponsorship activities for technological standards by Intel,
Microsoft, and Cisco (Gawyer, Cusumano, 2002).
Schilling (1998, 2002) indicates that the domination of standard depends on the size of
technology’s installed base and the availability of complimentary goods. The focal
organization can actively influence both factors by changes made to the distribution process,
alliances, and marketing strategies. In addition to that, firm’s learning orientation (readiness
to invest in core capability development) and timing of entry are important factors
influencing the chance of technological dominance.
The initial cognitive framing of technological design (Garud, Rappa, 1994) also plays an
important role in establishing the standard not merely as ‘the way of doing things’, but as a
social construct to be institutionalized. Further success of its institutionalization, or rise to the
status of a dominant standard which leads to the formation of supporting rules, norms, social
movements and organizations, is dependent upon the actors’ power to mobilize minds and
resources towards the effort of influencing market institutions. In this respect, organizations
play the role of ‘institutional entrepreneurs’, or agents of emergent institutional
transformation (DiMaggio, 1988; Fligstein, 1997).
These studies indicate that, first of all, a range of crucial variables influencing technological
dominance appears to be within the range of control of the firm. While some of these
variables refer to processes that occur within the boundary of the firm, others refer to
processes at the organizational boundary and in the environment. In addition to that, while
some of these factors embed the rivalry aspect, and are considered within the competitive
dynamics analysis, others appear largely unrelated to relationship with rivals. However,
though the importance of such determinants is hinted, the focus of research shifts towards
more evident ‘rivalry battle’ perspective.
An important consideration of the dynamics of dominant industry standards is provided by
the concept of ‘industry architectures’ (Jacobides et al., 2006). Architectures
provide the contours and framework within which actors interact; they are usually
partly designed (e.g. by regulation or de facto, by standards), and partly emergent (by
the creation of socially understood templates and means to coordinate economic
activities). (Jacobides et al., 2006: 1203)
The rise of industry architectures relates to the process of co-specialization, or the
technological complimentarily, emphasized by Teece (1986). However, factors behind the
rise of particular industry architectures are not purely technical, as these architectures are
often shaped by legislative or regulatory means, that serve to establish new architectures
(Grodal, 2006), as well as to protect existing ones (Shell, 2004). Across modern economies,
“political forces and lobbying can play a substantial role, not only in supporting any one
architecture, but also by discouraging other alternatives” (Jacobides et al., 2006: 1204).
Apart from that, information asymmetries that call for quality verification task play an
important role in shaping industry architectures. Accordingly, branding becomes one of the
means of defining architectures.
While agents shaping industry architecture compete between themselves for the definition of
‘how things are done’, each one carves a position not only for oneself, but also for providers
of complimentary goods and services, suppliers and consumers, that is, one’s ecosystem. In
this respect, activities that aim to establish a particular industry architecture (at the expense of
other rivals) are at the time activities that harmonize organizational ecosystem.
While coevolutionary dynamics, as well as contingencies of, technological dominance, are
considered in the literature, the process of dominant design emergence is seen as the process
of mutual adjustments: mutual adaptations or mutual selections (March, 1994; Murmann,
Tushman, 1998). Theoretical frameworks developed within the evolutionary perspective, are
biased towards the embrace of adaptation or selection processes. To the contrary, the
processes by which organizations create, or transform, their environments, remain
understudied. These are processes that harmonize relationships of the focal organization, or
group of organizations, with its ecosystem, at the same time changing ‘rules of the game’ for
other industry players. The next section considers these processes under the umbrella concept
of niche construction.
THE CONCEPT OF NICHE CONSTRUCTION
Definition of the concept
The concept of niche construction has been developed in the evolutionary theory addressing
the critique that, while excessive importance was assigned to the natural selection from
(exogenous) environment, the role of organisms, as active entities resisting evolutionary
pressures, was often downplayed (Levins, Lewontin, 1985). The gene-biased evolutionary
approach was inclined to see organisms plainly as vehicles for gene transmission (Dawkins,
1979), whereas organisms, individually and collectively, able to choose and modify their
environment (Lewontin, 1983). Organisms and their ecological niches are co-constructing
and co-defining each other; in particular, organisms both physically shape their environments
and determine which factors in the external environment are relevant to their evolution, thus
assembling such factors into their niches.
The evolutionary process depends not only on natural selection and genetic inheritance, but
also on the process of niche construction and ecological inheritance (Odling-Smee, Laland,
Feldman, 2003). Niche construction may reduce environmental pressures: e.g. building a
burrow or a hive will protect organisms and their resources from some nature hazards and
predators. Speaking in terms of the fitness landscape, niche constructing species do not
‘climb’ the local peak of fitness; they rather become ‘landscape shapers’, raising new
mountains where these never existed before.
Modification of selection pressures also generates an evolutionary feedback, so that new
pressures may emerge as well and influence the process of evolution in the cumulative
manner: e.g. anatomy of moles or social insects is largely influenced by the type of habitat
which they construct. The legacy of niche constructing activities in inherited along with the
pool of genes (Laland et al., 2000). Human species, as a striking instance, live in the complex
artificially constructed environments that were produced over generations.
Generalization of evolutionary principles has been one of the highly effective research
strategies in organization and management studies. Basic principles of Darwinian evolution
(in particular, the variation-selection-retention triad), separated from specific mechanisms of
inheritance and selection of organisms, represent laws of evolution in their most universal (or
general) form (Campbell, 1965; Plotkin, 1994; Dennett, 1995). The principles of evolution
are generic ones, applicable to social as well as biological systems (Aldrich, Ruef, 2006;
Aldrich et al., 2008), even though organizational evolving entities may use mechanisms of
variation, selection, retention or struggle completely different from those used in living
systems (Durand, 2006).
The concept of niche construction may offer a useful perspective for consideration of
proactive organizational strategies with the coevolutionary framework. The process of niche
construction can be envisaged as ‘guided selection’, reduction or modification of selection
pressures, that steer the coevolutionary process into the desirable direction.
The concept of niche is often explained as a social domain, formed by the division of labor
and the distribution of knowledge, in which opportunities are organized (Brittain, 1994).
More broadly, niches are characterized by the common dependence on resources (Hannan,
Freeman, 1989). Respectively, the process of niche construction does not imply strategic
assaults on rivals, or changes in organizational boundaries through acquisitions and
divestments, although the outcome of niche construction may, and does, transform the
competitive landscape. Rather, it implies sustained changes in the pool of resources in the
environment (i.e. outside the organizational boundary), changes in the knowledge distribution
and the typical divisions of labor. Rather than the ‘game by the rules’ strategy, it is envisaged
as the ‘change of the rules of the game’ that addresses constituents (such as suppliers,
consumers, complimentary product producers, regulators, social movements etc.) as well as
The niche construction can broadly be defined as the sustained change to the resources and
relations in the organizational environment, that have long-lasting effects upon the strategy of
the focal organization(s) and organizational constituents. The transformation or creation of
organizational niche, therefore, results in the sustained change in patterns of strategic
activities. While the definition embeds a temporal dimension that may be hard to specify
without the loss of generality, the consideration here is the same as the distinguishing
between the strategic vs tactical action, or long-run vs short-run in economic theory.
Although this general definition encompasses a range of phenomena, including the
emergence of new markets, organizational forms and other social phenomena as externalities,
of particular interest to strategy scholars is the niche construction as teleological process, that
is, a governed, or guided, action. The ensuing discussion focuses on the governed niche
construction by individual organizations. Arguably, the collective governed niche
construction will use similar strategies, although it will require additional mechanisms to
reach consensus and coordinate actions (Ring, Van de Ven, 1992).
Niche construction strategies
Existing research suggests that the process of governed niche construction requires at least
a. The organization, or group thereof, frames or reframes an issue so that a potential new
construct (new beliefs and new ideas) emerges (Sarasvathy et al., 2003; Alvarez, Barney,
2007; McAdam et al., 1996; Snow, Benford, 1992). This framing may not necessarily be
completely novel; though usually novel to the environment, it often may be derived from the
bundle of organization-specific competencies (Peteraf, 1993).
b. The focal organization then has to ‘get the message through’ its boundaries, to influence its
constituents. Prior to the (possible) establishment of a new framing or belief as a legitimate
social construct, the focal organization engages in communications with its constituents
(Rindova, Fombrun, 1999). The creation of environment by means of the ‘enactment’
strategy requires attempts to manipulate perceptions and issues, and to impose ideas on the
environment (Daft, Weick, 1984). Communications are an essential part of organizational
boundary shifts (Tushman, 1977; Nonaka, 1994); yet, more important, they induces
transformations beyond organizational boundaries, e.g. in marketing (Frazier, Summers 1984;
Smith, Taylor 2004), supplier relation management (Takeishi, 2001; Larson, Kulchitsky,
2000), and institution-changing political activities (Hillman et al., 1999, 2004).
c. The learning process ensures that constituents accept the construct, and modify their
framing of thought and action accordingly; and further recall the construct, so that the pattern
is not forgotten. The structuring of communicative acts is thus essential for the efficiency of
learning and recalling: apart from introducing, into the communication, reinforcements that
encourage constituents to learn or recall, the focal organization also needs to plan repetitive
communications across the range of contexts and media (Grunig, 1992).
The choice of communicative formats has to be tailored to the strategic ends and
circumstances. The variety of constituents, and diversity of environmental types, suggests
that organizations may find different ways to construct their niches. Also, strategies applied
will differ for organizations that are new and established, small and large, etc.
Previous research has suggested that organizations and entrepreneurs are likely to engage in
the environment constructing strategies when environments are perceived as unanalyzable or
ambiguent (Daft, Weick, 1984; Santos, Eisenhardt, 2005), such as in nascent markets
(Grodal, 2006). Preference of uncertainty over ambiguity stimulates the sensemaking (Weick,
1995) and the creation of environments (Santos, Eisenhardt, 2006). It was also argued that
newly formed organizations are more likely to attempt ‘enactments’ than those established,
and conform to existing norms and standards as they become mature (Daft, Weick, 1984;
However, the position of mature and well-established organizations in their network enables
them better to employ strategies that manipulate the environment in their favor (Hillman et
al., 1999, 2004; Schuler et al. 2002; Gulati, 1999; Powell et al., 1996). Role of the network
position in resource mobilization is underlined by the social movement theory (McAdam et
al., 1996; McCarthy, Zald, 1977) Such organizations develop and maintain the set of dynamic
capabilities which supports their pro-active political actions (Oliver, Holzinger, 2008). It is
also suggested that strategies of political action will differ for environments that are definite
and ambiguous (Schuler et al., 2002); again, organizations are motivated to reduce the level
of ambiguity (Hillman et al., 1999).
These discussions indicate an important dimension of analysis: a relative power position of
the focal organization and its constituents. The role of inter-organizational power is of high
importance in the process of environment transformation (Santos, Eisenhardt, 2006). The
organization can choose between symmetric and asymmetric relations, depending on the
decision or resource control power of its constituents, as argued by the resource-dependence
theory (Pfeffer, Salancik, 1978). Here, the symmetric position implies that the focal
organization has little or no power leverage over its constituents. Arguably, established and
large organizations are more likely to adopt the asymmetric position (since they usually have
higher legitimacy and more resources available), while new organizations would tend to take
symmetric positions (cf. consideration of bargaining power by Porter (1985)). The
asymmetric position of power, furthermore, permits the use as well as the abuse of power:
while shaping norms within the industry, or mentoring supplier and distributor organizations,
is largely socially acceptable, strategies that imply manipulation, coercion and deceiving are
Another important dimension in governed niche construction is whether the process is
governed directly, in one-to-one contacts with constituents, or indirectly, in one-to-many
communicative interactions that address organizational networks and ‘ecosystems’. One-to-
one interactions imply relations that are harder to avoid, and potentially stronger ties between
interacting parties. Due to the directness of interaction, a range of actions is possible, and
communication is likely to be adjusted to accommodate the specifics of interacting parties.
Unlike that, indirect interactions between the focal organization and groups or populations
within its ecosystem are more easily avoidable, and ties between interacting parties are
usually weaker. Because of this, the focal organization has a notably smaller repertoire of
actions to address its constituents.
Along these two dimensions it is possible to indicate a range of typical strategies of niche
construction (Table 1). It is also worth noting that, since the direct governance makes a
broader range of strategies suitable, strategies used in the indirectly governed niche
construction may also be used in directly governed processes.
Table 1: Typical strategies of governed niche construction
Symmetric position Asymmetric (power) position
use of power abuse of power
Direct governance Convince Mentor Manipulate / Coerce
Indirect / network Inspire / Share values Set norms / values Deceive
In the direct symmetric relationship, the focal organization has little control over the
constituent. It is therefore likely to adopt the strategy of convincing, that is, reframing the
situation so that parties will find mutual interest in the changed environment. Convincing
often requires ‘educational effort’ that reduces information asymmetries, so that the focal
organization helps learning of its constituents. Strategy of convincing is important in
mobilizing resources for institutional changes as the industry transcends through stages of its
lifecycle (Barnett, 2005). The political action, including lobbying, also requires convincing
(Hillman et al., 2004). In nascent or growing industries, convincing is an important element
of forming the pool of loyal suppliers and buyers (Matthyssens, Van den Bulte, 1994).
When the focal organization has higher control over its constituents, it may try to change
constituents’ actions through mentoring. Mentoring implies that the focal organization
commits resources and teachings capabilities to transform practices and models of its
constituents. In cases considered by Sako (2004, 2006), leading Japanese OEMs have
committed significant efforts to the supplier development process, to teach their suppliers
technological and managerial practices to suit OEM’s needs better.
The transformation of activity patterns by mentoring can be complemented by gaining
additional power leverage through co-opting (Oliver, 1991; Santos, Eisenhardt, 2006). While
co-opting is often envisaged in terms of alliance building, and thus extending organizational
boundaries, it can be considered as a sort of ‘communicative channel building’, through
which the focal organization encourages the transformation of its constituents.
Finally, the focal organization may coerce or otherwise manipulate its constituents to bend
their actions and strategies. For instance, in the ‘Wintel’ relationship, Microsoft has used its
position of power to force Intel to provide algorithms of its newly developed MMX processor
to its competitor AMD, which allowed Microsoft to retain control over industry standards
development and increase the market for its applications (Casadesus-Masanell, Yoffie, 2007).
When the indirect governance is considered, the primary strategy is the design of
communicative messages that would spread through networks of organizational constituents.
The focal organization may devise constructs that can serve as ‘focal points’ in attracting
supporters for organizational practices. This is largely the case with social movements, but
also with organizations that coordinate large ‘ecosystems’ involving many independent
players, e.g. Google (Iyer, Davenport, 2008) or Intel (Gawyer, Cusumano, 2002).
The indirect governance of changes in the network or population of constituents, over which
the focal organization has insufficient power, stimulates communicative strategies of non-
rational encouragement. The organization drives on inspiration and sharing of values that
establish the positive feedback for desirable activities. Organizations can apply this strategy
in growing elements of their ecosystems, such as loyal consumer groups or multi-tier supplier
networks. For instance, large companies in consumer markets often cultivate brand
communities (e.g. Coca-Cola, Apple, Saab, or Harley-Davidson): consumer group with
strong group identity, rituals and traditions, that maintain loyalty to the brand (Muniz,
O’Guinn 2001). Brand communities are usually organized around emotional, not functional,
components of the brand or other organizational identity, and inspirational / value sharing
communications from focal organizations are crucial for the formation and maintenance of
such communities (McAlexander et al., 2002, cf. Pascale, 1984). Complex supplier networks
also are emergent structures that are difficult to control, and therefore they are better
managed through positive feedback communications (Choi et al., 2001).
In the position of power, given e.g. by the central role in the network, the focal organization
may attempt to establish norms and values for its domain. As the first step in this strategy,
the organization may communicate strategic projections that increase favorable evaluations
by constituents (Rindova, Fombrun, 1999). Similarly, in nascent or newly created industries
and markets, organizations often attempt to ‘claim the market’, in order to establish and
maintain the power position (Santos, Eisenhardt, 2006; Grodal, 2006). This is achieved
primarily by communicative strategies: signaling leadership to convey the expertise
superiority and market dominance, and dissemination of stories that increase awareness and
reinforce perceptions about the firm (Santos, Eisenhardt, 2006: 12).
Finally, organizations can choose the strategy of deception to manipulate networks and
populations of constituents they confront (Daft, Weick, 1984). While some of these activities
may be performed only in the interest of managers involved, other may serve the strategic
interest of organizations. Santos and Eisenhardt (2006) argue that the creation of illusions,
which can be seen as a weak form of deception, is instrumental in achieving control over
nascent markets (Rindova and Fombrun (1999) indicate risks of this strategy for more
The above discussion of niche constructing strategies has two important implications. First, in
the governed niche construction, the role of structured communications in establishing social
constructs (issues, framings etc.) is evident. Communicative strategies provide a missing
causal link between the creation of the technological construct, and the establishment of this
construct in the socio-economic system. Second, these communications often embeds an
educational element, especially when the direct governance is concerned. Thus, the directly
governed niche construction can be described as the governance of constituents’ learning, or,
the teaching of constituents. While educational efforts of organization receive only minor
attention, the recent research (Sako 2004, 2006; Normann 2001) suggests that they play
crucial role in transforming organizational environment, and in creation of new opportunities.
The following sections of the paper provide an example of how these niche constructing
strategies were used by Sun Microsystems to attain the technological dominance of its
language platform Java.
CASE OF JAVA PLATFORM
Java is a good example of the dominant design, or platform leadership, being the major
technology used for running applications in the Internet and on mobile devices. More
importantly so, in the promotion of Java, Sun explicitly pursued the ‘open source’ ideology,
encouraging ecosystem participants to develop Java applications as well as the language
itself. It, however, navigated carefully to retain the position of the ‘open control’, retaining
control over essential components of the technology. In doing that, Sun has become the
centre of its own ecosystem including software vendors, applet developers, hardware
producers, and users. The case of Sun Java thus illuminates how the company can build its
ecosystem, and, as it is argued further, employs the strategy of niche construction in doing
The case of the emergence of Java as a ‘dominant design’ has been considered in detail by
the study of Garud, Jain, and Kamaraswamy (2002). The following section uses their findings
intensively. However, the section also reconsiders their case study, acting as a repetitive
experiment in strategy studies. Clearly, every case study presents a consistent and rather
selective description of the flow of events. This description may be limited by the availability
of quantitative and qualitative evidence and the chosen timeframe, but, even more so, by the
use of theoretical framework which highlights specific aspects of the dynamics and
downplays others seen of lower importance.
The analysis of the earlier paper was primarily focused on the ‘battle of technologies’ – a
rivalry that occurred between Sun and the incumbent Microsoft. Because of this, it did not
explore in detail the harmonizing actions of Sun in regard to the creation and maintenance of
Java ecosystem. Apart from that, the chronology of that work considered the limited timespan
of five years, from 1995 to 2000. While these have been most dramatic years, as Java was
becoming a standard, further transformations after 2000 may also be worth considering.
These are two essential differences of the present analysis from the one accomplished by
Garud and co-authors. The comparison of interpretations suggested by the earlier paper and
the insights given by niche construction concept will be provided in next section.
Similar to the work of Garud et al., this paper uses publicly available information as the main
source of data, such as published annual reports and other investor relationship documents
(available at the corporate website, http://www.sun.com), newspaper, magazine and blog
reports that provide information about company’s decisions and strategic considerations.
Sun Microsystems is the global producer of computer servers, components, software and
integration services, with headquarters in Palo Alto, CA. It has raised into fame in late 1980s
with its UNIX-based server stations which have become the backbone of the emerging
network technologies. From mid-1990s, the growing attention of Sun and the increasing share
of its income was coming from software development. The current portfolio of Sun software
products includes the operating system Solaris, MySQL database management software,
middleware software for web applications, etc. The hallmark of Sun Microsystems is Java
software platform: – in August 2007, the company has even decided to switch its NASDAQ
tag from SUNW to JAVA. According to Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who explained this
move, Java is the best recognized brand of Sun, as
Java touches nearly everyone - everyone - who touches the internet. Hundreds of
millions of users see Java, and its ubiquitous logo, every day. On PC's, mobile
phones, game consoles - you name it, wherever the network travels, the odds are good
Java's powering a portion of the experience1.
Java is a programming language devised by a group of engineer enthusiasts within Sun as a
universal programming platform for the emerging class of ‘smart’ devices (ranging from to
telephones to houseware): the concept implying devices that could be programmed with Java
to perform various functions. Some of such smart devices, e.g. ‘smartphones’, materialized
only ten years after the launch of the project. However, at the point when prototype language
was developed, it has become clear that the most promising domain of its utilization was
Internet. Accordingly, the company has decided to establish Java as the template language of
Internet software applications, and later spawn to other domains (such as mobile phone or
DVD player programming). Thus, from middle 1990s Java has quickly become, and remains,
http://blogs.sun.com/jonathan/entry/java_is_everywhere (accessed 25 Dec 2008)
a dominant programming language for execution of small applications, or applets, such as
those used for online banking or gaming.
The timeline of Java platform development can roughly be broken into five major stages
(Figure 1). These stages almost twenty years of Java history, from the product development
since 1990 to the current moment, when larger part of Java is an official ‘open source’
licensed as GNU General Public License (free software operating system collection), yet Sun
remaining the centre of this ‘open source’ community. These stages are conventional and, in
fact, intertwine. For instance, strategy of installation base creation continued as the company
engaged in the battle with the incumbent (Microsoft), and the very battle, upon the end of the
active phase in late 1990s, reoccurred afterwards in 2000s (e.g. with launch of Microsoft
.NET platform in 2002); and, while the active part of ‘standardization’ efforts also ended
around 2000, the official recognition of Java as the public standard was only achieved in
Figure 1: Stages of Java development
Stage C: Stage D:
Stage A: Stage B: Stage E:
1990-5 1995-9 2000-8
Product Installation Battle with Standardi- Standard
development base creation incumbent zation development
and launch in ‘open
Stage A: Product development and launch. The early stage of Java was the period before
its launch to the market. In 1990, a small group of engineers at Sun Microsystem commenced
a project that could serve as an alternative programming language to then-dominant Sun C++.
The largest opportunity for the language was seen in programming next generation 'smart'
household devices. It was therefore important to have a platform that can be easily ported to
different types of devices, e.g. PDAs. The developers’ interest was in building highly-
interactive applications, in particular, the remote control for cable TV. However, since the
cable industry companies felt that the solution gave too much control to end-users, they were
reluctant to give orders, and the project had to retract to Sun.
In mid-1994, the developer team re-targeted the platform for the World Wide Web. It was
assumed that, with the advent of newly created graphical web browsers such as Mosaic, the
Internet would evolve into the highly interactive medium, for which the language was a
suitable solution. The language was then branded Java. Also, as a part of the effort, the team
produced a simple web browser based on the newly developed language, named HotJava.
Both products have been released to the public in early 1995.
From the beginning, the developer group wanted Java to become the center of post-PC
Internet-based programming community. In this respect, the model of ‘open control’ was
imprinted upon Java platform from the moment of its launch.
Phase B: Installation base creation. Shortly after the launch, Sun primarily concern was to
build swiftly a base of installations (the ‘bandwagon’) and recruits loyal developers of
complimentary products, to provide network effects to its users. These are two critical factors
of attaining the technological standard dominance (Schelling, 1998).
In order to attain to this goal, Sun used the same type of strategy it used earlier in its core
workstation market (Garud, Kumaraswamy, 1993): provision of access to its proprietary
technology to the suppliers of complimentary goods and services. Specifically, Sun allowed
third-party developers to download Java software package for free from its web site (the
‘early access’ feature), so that new language could be installed and tried.
In parallel, Sun began a massive marketing campaign in order to share the vision of, and the
values behind, Java concept with its partners and users (independent developers). This, first
of all, included the promotion of the unique selling point of Java as the software that could be
ran across different devices and operating systems: the ‘write once, run anywhere’ approach,
contrasted to the need to re-write software for each major platform, typical for those days.
Apart from that, Sun began to set expectations of existing and potential vendors, of benefits
‘yet to come’ with Java platform development: the possibility of Java to become ‘the lingua
franca’ of the Internet. This idea was seen as a natural extension of Sun slogan, ‘The network
is a computer’. By making sound promises of future advantages of the language (which were,
in a way, legitimized by Sun superiority in network hardware technologies), Sun fought for
the minds of independent developers and potential partners, and the bandwagon started to
The growth of the bandwagon was used by Sun to improve its product. Apart from the
traditional product modification in response to customer feedback, Sun allowed Java users to
modify the language according to their needs. However, the license agreement required users
to share any modifications for free with other users and Sun. This critical element of the
licensing policy allowed Sun to retain control over customizations of Java, while using the
‘strength of community’ to introduce new functionalities.
Among one of the important moves of Sun is that it purposefully facilitated learning of the
new technologies. Sun has developed and conducted online and offline free Java courses, it
has created and distributed free Java tutorials, provided case studies, tips and other support to
independent developers. These activities were accomplished from the early days after the
launch of the platform, and they became even more important as Sun moved into other stages
of the standard maintenance (see Stage E – standard development in ‘open control’ mode).
Through the combination of free access, expectation management, and support to learning, by
the end of 1995 Sun was able to license Java to over forty major vendors, including Adobe,
AT&T, Borland, IBM, Intel, Oracle, Symantec and Toshiba.
Stage C: battle with the incumbent firm. With Microsoft Windows as a dominant
operating system, and Microsoft’s interest in the rapidly growing field of web technologies
(MS Internet Explorer was launched in early 1995), the interaction, and the potential conflict,
with Java, was inevitable.
Around the time when Java was launched, Microsoft was developing a similar content
authoring technology, named Blackbird. Accordingly, Microsoft initially decided to actively
ignore, not endorse, Java, and has refused to acquire a license. However, by the end of 1995,
when Sun announced its success in the license campaign with big names on board, the
propagation of Java could not be ignored any longer. In addition, in then-ongoing ‘browser
wars’ with Netscape, Microsoft was keen to imitate the key advantages of the dominant rival
browser Netscape Navigator (with over 80% of the market2), and Java remained one of the
important yet missing functionalities.
The resulting decision was to acquire a license from Sun in early 1996. However,
immediately afterwards, Microsoft started to develop its proprietary extensions to Java that
were only compatible with Microsoft Windows and MS Internet Explorer. These solutions
posed a threat to the ability of Sun to remain in the position of ‘open control’ of their
technology – and they were obviously contradictory to the initial positioning of Java as ‘write
once, run anywhere’ solution. Through Microsoft actions, and the fragmentation of Java
solutions into several incompatible versions, the initial focus of Java’s selling point could
Rather than a tactical battle over custom approaches to a particular technology, this conflict
can be seen as a natural consequence of the early framing of solutions by each of rival
companies (cf. (Garud, Rappa, 1994)). For Sun, Java was seen as a potential ubiquitous
language of the Internet, which, therefore, had to be independent from specific operating
systems and hardware solutions. For Microsoft, the proprietary technology of MS Windows
was central, whereas a language to run ‘applets’ on the Internet was seen as an element of
their solution to Internet browsing. Platform-independent Java was, in this view, an
http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/user_surveys/ (accessed 25 Dec 2008)
inappropriate solution which could dilute the existing dominance of MS Windows and the
future dominance of MS Internet Explorer3. It was, therefore, natural for Microsoft to place
Java somewhere in the middle of their hierarchy of programming languages, and customize it
to run with Windows and Internet Explorer.
Though the action may seem natural to Microsoft, it appeared to violate the spirit of Java
license agreement. Sun has decided to file a lawsuit charging Microsoft with infringement of
the license agreement. The lawsuit was settled in 2001, and the use of Microsoft Java Virtual
Machine (the proprietary solution for Internet Explorer) was discontinued afterwards.
Up to date, Microsoft has launched a number of other proprietary solutions developed
alongside the same perspective as customized Java solution. In late 1990s, Microsoft
launched ActiveX language that allows to install additional application ‘controls’ within
Internet Explorer. Further on, in 2002 Microsoft created a full-fledged alternative to Java
platform, .NET framework. Although it was meant to be spread to the range of platforms, it
remains fully functional only on Windows platforms. However, a shared version with limited
functionality is available for education purposes, and it is distributed on other platforms,
including Mac OS X and Linux.
Sun-Microsoft relationship is an open-end story. However, after over a decade of rivalry, it
took another turn in late 2008, when Sun Java and Microsoft agreed on strategic partnership
alliance. The rationale, according to Sun’s CEO, is that “[t]his deal will be one of the most
valuable distribution deals ever struck in the industry - and it likely makes Microsoft one of
Sun's largest customers”4.
Stage D: standardization. With vendors developing customized solutions of Java, and
Microsoft openly promoting its proprietary version of MS Java, Sun risked losing the hold of
Note that around that time, Netscape founder Marc Andreessen promoted a ‘third view’ of the future of
computer interface, claiming that “Navigator will be able to take over the whole desktop. In fact, you’ll be able
to boot directly into it” (http://news.zdnet.com/2100-3513_22-128738.html, accessed 25 Dec 2008)
http://blogs.sun.com/jonathan/entry/the_value_of_distribution_java (accessed 27 Dec 2008)
the ‘open control’ position. The aim to retain this position was publicly confirmed.
Standardization initiatives followed as a response.
One of the first efforts was the 100% Pure Java initiative launched in the early 1997. Within
this initiative, Sun would certify Java applications that passed the compatibility tests. Sun
maintained that compatibility of Java and its applications was critical, and also within the
scope of Java licenses. In 1998, recognizing the growth of vendor community, as the variety
of extensions, Sun opened parts of Java code to the public, and released its license terms,
requiring Java-based products only to pass compatibility tests developed by Sun.
This process was not the one-way street. From 1998, Sun voluntarily joined the Java
Community Process that allows interested parties to propose changes to any of Java
technologies via expert groups, forums and consultations. Within this process, anyone
interested (including not only commercial vendors, but also private and non-commercial
users) can suggest changes to Java language or platform specifications. These proposals are
reviewed and voted upon by community members, although Sun retains the power of veto to
introduce any changes into standard implementations. Over 300 proposals have been
implemented using this process.
Java partners and vendors, including major ones, expressed concerns regarding the excess
control over Java technology by Sun, which could represent threats for their own
investments. From 1997, Sun received continuous requests to handle the standardization
process, partially or fully, to an internationally recognized independent standardization body.
In response, Sun approached a number of such bodies, including International Organization
for Standardization (ISO), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and
European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA). The aim of Sun was, however, to
received the endorsement of any of these bodies for Java yet validate Sun’s legitimacy to
retain its ‘open control’ position. Therefore, as independent sources suggest, Sun attempted to
coopt standardizing bodies in each case, and backed when standardization on terms desired
by Sun was possible (Wolfe, 1998; Shankland, 2000). This raised concerns within Java
community, and major vendors such as HP and Oracle started to develop their own versions
of Java to prevent possible threats.
However, Sun has not completely abandoned the standardization project. In late 2006, all of
Java software, except for closed-source code elements, has been officially licensed GNU
Public License to become part of GNU, a Unix-like free software operating system. In
mid-2007, Java released the complete source code, with the exception of limited parts
sourced to Sun by third parties, who did not want their code to be released under open-source
license5. Sun made a promise to replace these closed-source elements by open-source
elements with similar functionality in the future. In 2008, Red Hat, the major distributor of
Linux committed to open-source software, confirmed that its fully functional open-source
implementation of the Java platform, IcedTea, has passed the Sun compatibility tests.
Stage E: standard development in ‘open control’ mode. As Java raised to the position of
dominance in its technological field, the real challenge for Sun was to retain its central
position in the evolving community. Significant pressure was coming from developers and
vendors, especially major ones, that wanted Sun to release control over Java code, so that it
becomes a public standard. They contested the strategy of Sun which was, in their eyes,
constant framing and reframing of rules of the game. Most important, Sun was the developer
of the language, and at the same competed with some its clients as the provider of
Sun was, however, initially reluctant to give control, since its central position in the
community was not secure. However, it also faced the risk of fragmentation of the
technological field, as some its major clients promised to develop their proprietary versions
of Java, which would discredit the core concept of Java as the ubiquitous platform- (and
provider-) independent language. As noted above, Sun has finally decided to give full control
over the language to the community, making it an ‘open source’ with publicly available and
This made the task of retaining the core position in the community – and the ability to capture
value from this position – even more challenging for Sun. Therefore, in early 2000s Sun
adopted two additional elements of its strategy.
First of these elements was to extend Sun’s presence in complimentary products. Sun dealt
with this issue so in two classical ways – through integration with key technology owners,
and alliances with key vendors that could open new markets for applications developed in-
Sun acquired several important companies in software production. One of the first Java-
related acquisitions, accomplished in 1998, was NetDynamics, developers of NetDynamics
Application Server, the first Java-based integrated software platform. Further, in 1999, Sun
acquired NetBeans, a startup that developed modular integrated development environment for
Java. In 2005, two further acquisitions were made: Tarantella, owning a series of Java
applications, and SeeBeyond, owning the technology that has become central in one of Sun’s
Java-related products, Sun Java Composite Application Platform Suite. In 2007, Sun acquired
SavaJe, the developer of Java-based operating system for advanced mobile phones.
Sun also used Java and Java-related acquisitions as a basis for the promotion for some of its
new products. For instance, in 2005 Sun launched the consulting service related to the novel
concept of service-oriented architecture (the essence of this concept is Sun’s slogan, ‘network
is a computer’), and technologies acquired with NetBeans and SeeBeyond were used as core
elements of its value proposition. In 2008, Sun launches JavaFX, a new family of Java-based
software products for creating rich Internet applications, web-based applications with
functionalities of traditional desktop applications, that can be used with desktop computers,
mobile phones, TV, DVD and other technological platforms; this product uses elements of
NetBeans and SavaJe technologies.
In addition to that, Sun has entered into alliances with major vendors and key industry players
to extend the reach of Java. One of the first partnerships was with AOL-Netscape company in
2000; under the alliance agreement, Sun acquired many of Netscape’s non-browser software
products, and further included them within the Java package (Sun Java System). In early
2000s, Sun entered into agreements with mobile phone manufacturers, such as Motorola and
Nokia, to extend the reach of Java to mobile phone platforms. In 2005, Sun agreed upon
alliances with a number of important software producers, including the co-development
agreement with Oracle, the co-marketing agreement with Google, and the long-term
collaboration agreement with IBM. In addition to that, Sun has agreed with Panasonic that
Java will be supported by the next generation of DVD players using Panasonic- sponsored
BluRay technology (nowadays, a dominant format in high-definition optical disks). This was
an important move towards the support of the initial concept of Java as ‘write once, run
anywhere’ language for different types of smart devices, not only Internet.
Further on, Sun has participated in a number of initiatives that promoted its standing in ‘open
source’ community. In particular, in 2006 Sun joined the OpenAJAX initiative and has
become the sponsor of Dojo foundation, to support the effort of communal development of
the next generation of Java web-based technologies (AJAX is one of the key technologies
behind the web-based cloud computing model, supported, among others, by Google). In
2007, Sun agreed on full-scale collaboration with RedHat, one of the key promoters of open
source software. These steps were important for legitimizing the retention of the Sun’s central
position in Java community.
However, the crucial elements of strategy to retain Sun’s control over Java community, as the
formal intellectual property right is fully released, lie in marketing and education efforts.
On the marketing side, from 2003 Sun has decided to commit itself to the increased Java
brand recognition by end-users, not vendors alone. This was seen important as more Java-
based applications were available on the Internet, and Java moved to mobile telephone
platforms. Apart from entering into alliances with phone manufacturers such as Nokia or
service providers such as Vodafone, Sun also wanted to secure demand from consumers. In
order to do so, it has actively marketed through different channels, including TV shows that
featured Java-based mobile entertainment6, and produced easily recognizable brand elements
such as Java mascot. By reaching end-users, Sun established the customer loyalty and
secured the demand for itself.
Educational effort is another important component of Java promotion strategy. By increasing
the number of programmers skilled in Java application writing, Sun ensures the long-term
sustainability of Java community – both on the side of staffing, and new startup launching.
Therefore, it actively promotes Java to college students and instructors in academia. Elements
of the campaign include free learning programs for college students (largely online courses),
use of ‘campus ambassadors’ that actively promote Java to their peers, and reduced fees for
Java licenses to academic institutions.
Some of these elements are bundled within Sun Academy Initiative, operable since early
2000s. This program involves partnership with computer science departments in major
educational institutions around the globe, that become authorized on giving training on Sun
technologies to students, faculty, and staff. As a part of this initiative, Sun provides training
and guidelines for instructors, training materials, and discounts for software and certification
In addition to that, Sun supports the creation and development of Java User Groups (JUGs),
volunteer organizations that strive to distribute Java-related knowledge around the world.
JUGs are instrumental in sense of building local Java communities, creating peer support and
sharing knowledge through networks. As a part of its effort to coordinate JUGs, Sun runs the
directory of JUGs on its website, hosts JUG online forums, and conducts JUG-focused events
during its conferences with vendors and developers.
The paper of Garud and co-authors interprets the emergent technological domination in a
fairly traditional view, as the rivalry between competing industry solutions. In some cases,
such as the rivalry between electric power systems of direct current and alternating current
(Shapiro, Varian, 1999; David, 1992), or between 33 rpm and 45 rpm music records
(Robertson, Langlois, 1992), or, just recently, between HD DVD and BluRay high-definition
optical disks, such a rivalry is evident. To some extent, Sun Java is a different case.
However, Java case is also different from the standard as “immediately out of collective
action within a fragmented industry.” (Langlois, 2004:14). Examples of the latter are the
emergence of standards within the US semiconductor industry (Langlois, 2000), or US
automotive industry (Thompson, 1954).
Sun’s technology was a sponsored one, and the emergence of the standard was thoroughly
guided. Yet, Sun faced no obvious rival: the company wanted to inhabit space largely
unoccupied, a solution for Internet-distributed applications based on the ‘write once, run
anywhere’ paradigm. When Sun started to colonize this technological space, there was no
evident rival in place: while Microsoft could have some similar ‘prototype’ products, such as
VBasic or Blackbird (as could have some weaker, and less known, potential rivals), the
concept of Sun Java was original, and well developed. Also, extensions of Java to mobile
phones, TV and DVD players appeared naturally within this concept.
The challenge of Sun was not only to establish the sponsored platform as a dominant
technological standard, but also to maintain its central position in standard development and
value capture. As a company following the narrow path of ‘open control’ strategy, Sun has to
balance between two contradicting needs: the need to allow the community to use and modify
the technological standard, and the need to retain control over this standard so that to prevent
creation of incompatible versions. The difficulty of Sun was to steer the standard as it
emerged, especially with actions of Microsoft that wanted to take over the technological field
with its proprietary extensions of Java.
The interpretation by Garud and co-authors stresses aspects of the standard domination
process related to the ‘battle of standards’ (Figure 2). Early upon the launch, in stage B, the
technology sponsor has to mobilize support (from vendors and developers) to overcome
initial inertia and spread the technology further.
This mobilization, in the ‘battle’ view, is required to take on the incumbent. Accordingly,
supporters are provided with common meanings and identities, stressing differences with the
incumbent (Garud et al, 2002: 206):
The sponsor may also have to galvanize action by evoking images of a collective
organized against a powerful and unpopular incumbent. Such an action is consistent
with observations in the institutional theory literature on how actors generate
momentum by evoking the image of a common enemy.
The paper by Garud and co-authors suggests that Microsoft came to be such a ‘common
enemy’, and the mobilization of the ‘open source’ community stressed its differences from
the ‘closed source’ approach, of which Microsoft was a typical example.
Further on, the ‘battle of standards’ moves into an open conflict (stage C), which is central to
this interpretation. Actions of Microsoft aim to threaten the position of Sun, and challenge its
ability to dominate the field. Respectively, they are followed by counter-actions from Sun:
the use of legal mechanisms to thwart countermobilization. The successfully settled lawsuit is
one of the culminations in the ‘battle’, a major tactical win leading to a strategic victory.
Subsequent activities of Sun, its attempts to, first of all, establish itself as the formal industry
standard (through cooption of standardization bodies) are envisaged as steps to protect its
technological domain from existing and potential rivals. In doing so, Sun is interpreted to
address the incumbent (Microsoft) as some potential entrants (companies that use rival
technologies or their proprietary versions of Java).
Figure 2: Focus on ‘the battle of standards’
Stage В: resource Stage D-E: improving
mobilization to competitive advantage
combat incumbent over the incumbent
Stage А: Stage C: Stage D: Stage E:
development and combating standar- standard
product launch incumbent dization development
Image of incumbent-
‘Java Sun open source Focus on stage С:
opposing Microsoft direct conflict with the incumbent
closed source’ (Microsoft)
While these interpretations are valid, and they provide an important perspective of the
competition dynamics, they also appear to deprive this complex case of some of its crucial
developments. The ‘battle’ perspective stresses the high importance of conflict between
major players in the field, such as Microsoft or major vendors which on later stage wanted to
develop their proprietary versions of Java. Conflicts are self-evident to observers, they are
well-conceived by the strategic management theory, and they are most likely to be presented
by mass media, unlikely to be interested in stories of peace and harmony.
Harmonizing efforts of the company are seen as ‘natural’ and therefore unimportant, thus
they are often lost in the description of events. The concept of ‘niche construction’ presented
in Section 3 allows to highlight some these aspects (Figure 3).
First of all, it was argued that the early phase of niche construction relates to the ‘seed’
concept, the construct to be used as the guidance for niche constructing activities. Similarly to
Stinchcombe (1965), one can argue that organizational strategies, as well as organizations
themselves, maintain certain legacy of their ‘birth’ moment. Niche construction is, for
organizations, the ‘third way’, different from both organizational adaptation (when
organization changes follow environment changes) and selection by the environment (when
the organization, or certain part thereof, cedes to exist due to environment pressures). Niche
construction is a product of organizational capabilities: organizations with specific
capabilities may build new opportunities instead of (or, in addition to) exploring the existing
ones (partially due to organizational rigidities (Leonard-Barton, 1992) that lead to the
mismatch between organizational capabilities and the environment). To apply this argument
to the case, note that the concept of Java conceived initially (Stage A) was maintained as the
project developed: again, the spread of Java onto different platforms (DVD, mobile phones
etc.) was within the original concept of ‘the ubiquitous language for smart devices’.
In Stage B, when building its installation base, Sun employed a range of niche constructing
strategies. One of the crucial ones was to facilitate and support learning (by developers),
which allowed a swift take-off for the technology. Sun was also keen to inspire the emerging
‘open source’ community, to share values of the openness and co-creation. Note that, having
little power over the community, Sun used approaches that governed its partners and the
network from the ‘symmetric’ position of power (see Table 1).
Later (at Stages D and E), when Java community took the momentum, Sun acquired certain
power over the community and started to use strategies related to ‘asymmetric’ power
position. Standardization of rules, setting of values, and cooption of relevant legetimizing
bodies were among the steps accomplished by Sun in these stages.
However, the importance of niche constructing strategies for Sun probably even increased,
when coevolution of its strategy and product with Java community pushed Sun to gradually
release the control over the standard. Note two important developments after 2000, described
in Stage E. First of all, Sun moved substantial efforts into marketing, building stronger brand
to be recognized by end users, and not only the professional community. This is a type of
strategy related to creation and maintenance of ‘brand community’, largely employing
inspiration and value sharing. Second, Sun committed significant resources to educational
programs, increasing the number of Java-focused programmers, rising opportunities for Java-
related startups with complimentary products, and building higher loyalty among important
consumer groups, students and academics.
Also, though Sun was able to keep the technological field unified, the complexity of
organizational forms, and the variety of actors, increased with time. Sun was fairly successful
to manage these rising social challenges, acting as an ‘institutional entrepreneur’ (DiMaggio,
1988) guiding self-organization processes, rather than respond to unexpected challenges from
unnoticed social movements. First of these developments was Java Community Process:
institutionalization of the user feedback into a communal social process, carefully supported
and moderated by Sun. Another development was the rise of JUGs, user groups created and
steered by volunteers unrelated to Sun, yet again, supported and guided by Sun.
Figure 3: Emphasis on the ‘niche construction’ aspects
Stage В: role of teaching / Stage E: role of
Stage А: role of
learning (in direct contact education and brand building as
with developers) to create niche constructing strategies
installation base strengthening central position of Sun
Stage А: Stage C: Stage D: Stage E:
development and combating standar- standard
product launch incumbent dization development
Stages B, D: promotion of the Stages D-E: switch to the
common understanding (open standardization strategy
source) to establish common goals once the power over community
and values is reached
These niche construction strategies were instrumental in building Java position as the
dominant technological platform, and further in maintaining Sun’s central position in Java
community in ‘open control’ regime. As Sun turned Java itself largely into a public
controlled standard (free ‘open source’), it relies even more on niche constructing strategies
to maintain the legitimacy of its particular role for the community, and to capture value from
This paper examines the creation and maintenance of sponsored technological standards.
Standards can be envisaged as the subtype of industrial interface that establish the template
for the division of labor in complex technological fields, or the industry architecture. As the
paper by Jacobides and coauthors (2005) discusses, industry architectures emerge through
complex coevolutionary processes, in which particular pro-active organizational strategies,
including lobbying and branding, play important role.
The focus of the present paper is the concept of niche construction: pro-active strategies that
transform or create organizational niches, or, more precisely, the sustained change to the
resources and relations in the organizational environment, that have long-lasting effects upon
the strategy of the focal organization(s) and organizational constituents. Niche construction
strategies can be envisaged as ‘setting rules of the game’, contrary to competitive strategies
as ‘playing by the rules’.
The paper takes the reconsideration of one of well-known studies in the emergence of
dominant technological standard, the case of Java examined by Garud, Jain and
Kumaraswamy (2002). This reconsideration serves as the ‘repetitive experiment’ to highlight
the difference between the more conventional view of the standard dynamics as ‘the battle of
systems’, and the concept of niche construction. Since case studies are post-hoc
rationalizations of the flow of events, the use of explanatory framework largely influences the
presentation of the case.
In this reconsideration of the case, it is demonstrated that niche construction strategies are of
significance for creating and maintaining the dominant standard. In particular, in the ‘open
control’ situation, and even more so in ‘open source’ communities, the focal organization
utilizes niche construction strategies to maintain the legitimacy of its central position within
the community, and to enhance its value capture opportunities. Thus, elements of the
organizational strategies in technological fields, including ‘winner-take-all’ fields, that refer
to niche construction strategies, are important, and may demand further consideration.
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