Thinking about Java

As the second annual JavaOne conference continues, it becomes obvious that Java is here to stay, despite a lukewarm reception in the corporate arena thus far. SunSoft--and many other vendors, for that matter--are intent on keeping Java out of the hands of Microsoft (who were not invited to the conference, by the way). Microsoft, for their part, claims to be very supportive of Java and wishes to extend the functionality of the language on the Windows 32-bit platforms. The company has also created an ActiveX- Java bridge, raising the hackles of the Java faithful. This is, however, a successful strategy and one that Microsoft has honed to perfection: it's called "embrace and extend."

Sun's more open approach is laudable, but creates a "least common denominator" syndrome where the least-mature platform that supports Java determines the base feature set (particularly, user interface elements). Windows developers, who are used to advanced IDEs and a huge assortment of tools and components, are often amazed to discover the immaturity of Java and the tools used to create Java apps.

Sun has responded, however, with an interesting peek at the future of Java. The company plans to overhaul the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) so that it dynamically compiles byte code into machine code at a speed that allows Java applets and applications to rival native C/C++ programs. A new version of the Win32 JDK 1.1 DLL will speed the Windows implementation of Java. Additionally, Sun is breaking Java into four categories, each supporting different form factors, so that features can be added where they make sense, not tacked on to a single implementation, creating bloat.

And there are some success stories: major vendors such as IBM, Lotus, and Corel are working on Java applications. Unfortunately, it's easy to forget that Corel first announced and demoed their Corel Office for Java a year ago at the first JavaOne conference: the product has still yet to see the light of day despite well over a year of work. Corel's Java hardware, essentially a vaporware announcement made last fall, has never been publicly demonstrated either.

For Java to make the leap to the next level, some credible developers are going to have to prove that Java applications--not applets--are a serious alternative to native applications written in C/C++ or Visual Basic. For now, Java is relegated to the creation of the annoying spinning graphics and scrolling marquees that litter the Web like roadkill. JavaSoft (and even Microsoft, for that matter) are doing everything they can to take the technology--suddenly so much more than "just" a programming language-- to that level. The next few months will determine whether the usefulness of Java outlives the hype

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