Java has come a long way in a very short time and the grins on the faces of Scott McNealy, president and chief executive of its developer Sun Microsystems and his Java team tell the story of many hurdles they have overcome. Today, Java is said to be in use in 75 per cent of the top echelon of businesses in the US and touches a large and increasing proportion of commercial Web pages, not to mention its presence in nearly all browsers shipped in the past year. Java appears to have made it from meagre beginnings against large odds.
But in truth, the battle is far from won. Microsoft is still a force to be reckoned with and, US judicial intervention aside, can be relied on to provide strong competition with its omnipresent combination of operating system, applications and tools integration.
Originally, Java was born out of a consumer electronics project that Sun embarked on in 1990. The project was subsequently dumped but the language persisted, with the vendor shifting its development efforts accordingly.
While Java was being developed, the Web was taking off and the Mosaic browser was bringing multimedia hyperlinked pages to the masses. The Netscape team, many of whom had developed Mosaic, got wind of the Java concept and began building it into the later browser. But if Netscape had it, Microsoft had to have it too. It realised too late the Trojan horse that Java could become. Programmers looking for the next big thing woke up to a concept in programming languages that solved many of the problems they had moving applications onto the Net.
After many transformations, today's Java is shaped by its original target - a programming language created for small, personal digital assistants in TV set-top boxes that can run on any one of a number of anaemic processors.
Java is not only an object-oriented programming language as first intended, but also a concurrent programming language. Developers can create classes and objects and use inheritance - the typical object-oriented constructs - as well as create and manipulate threads. These powers make quite a powerful facility and provide the basis for Jini, the latest shining star in Sun's firmament.
Jini appears to be the answer to many networked nightmares. The technology provides simple mechanisms that enable disparate devices to plug together or communicate wirelessly to form an impromptu community. There is no fuss joining or leaving a community and a Jini community can be assembled without any human intervention. With Jini employed in the home, the phone can theoretically talk to the video recorder, hi-fi or even microwave oven. Jini-enabled devices provide their own interfaces, which help reliability and compatibility, and each device provides services that other devices in the community are able to use.
If you have never fully comprehended Novell's emphasis on directory infrastructure - or Microsoft's belligerence about Active Directory - Jini helps illustrate the point. To use a service, a Jini device locates it using the lookup service. The service's interface is then copied from the lookup service to the requesting device where it will be used. According to Sun, it makes no difference where a service is implemented - compatibility is ensured because each service provides everything needed to interact with it. There is no central repository of drivers or configuration details that need fiddling.
In the business world, Jini can provide access to data from traffic reports, share prices, schedules and computing resources.
Jini is built entirely on Java. Devices on a network are tied together using Java Remote Method Invocation (RMI), which provides security as required. The discovery and join protocols, plus the lookup service, depend on the ability to move Java objects, including their code, between Java Virtual Machines (JVMs).
With widespread interoperability assured, claims Sun, you should never find Jini VCRs blinking 00:00. According to McNealy, Jini is the most important reason for writing Java code.
Java may be a relatively new flag to rally around, but it's not a clean break with the programmatic past. Many of Java's internet characteristics came from languages that preceded it and it borrowed widely from constructs found in many of today's object-oriented programming languages such as C++ and Smalltalk.
But beyond the usual elements of a programming language such as C or Basic - syntax, semantics and so on - Java uses virtual machines. The JVM executes instructions that a Java compiler generates, making it a cross-platform development language that Microsoft fears could neuter Windows' grip on the PC market. This fundamental difference gives Java a huge advantage over other programming languages, but also creates a performance issue that is still not quite resolved. This is in contrast to the failed Microsoft project, Microsoft at Work, which envisaged Windows on everything from printers to telephones.
The JVM runtime environment can be incorporated or embedded in various products, such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
JVMs can also be incorporated into the kernel of an operating system, such as Unix or OS/2. They have been added to most commercially important Unix operating environments, mainframes, minis and the two leading PC browsers. Java is everywhere the internet goes.
Besides the cross-platform enabling capabilities of the JVM, Java also has a standardised set of class libraries or programming code bundles. They support the rapid development of graphical user interfaces, enable the control of multimedia data and handle the vital plumbing for communicating over networks, whether Lans or the Net. In addition, Java is being embodied in silicon to help counter some of the performance-related issues that arise from its architecture. Java, it turns out, is a language, a virtual machine environment, class libraries and even hardware.
It is easier to say who isn't spending money to build Java expertise and develop products than who is. The Java movement has gone way beyond its roots as a Sun project. Java was split off to a separate company, JavaSoft, before it was folded back into Sun Software and Technology.
Everyone is in on the game, including IBM, Oracle, Informix, Microsoft, Corel and Symantec, although with varying enthusiasm.
According to Peter Walker, director of marketing strategy at SCO, no large ISV is uncommitted to Java: 'There is a business bonanza for the channel in Java. It drives client and server requirements. Not only will there be countless server upgrades to contend with, plus more Java on more networks, but the re-engineering of Lans to intranets and the substitution of network computers for ASCII and 3270 terminals is going to be a boon to the channel and ISVs.'
No one was expecting Java to be an overnight commercial sensation. Walker says: 'We weren't surprised by the slow initial take-up of Java. Newness is a barrier and many IT departments can be forgiven their year 2000 preoccupations.' Walker promises more server-side Java technologies later this year to make adoption easier, adding that you only have to see the wall-to-wall Java on the Web to know the technology is established: 'The easy stuff is done, but real commitment to big applications and real business solutions have only just arrived.'
It was looking shaky for a while. High-visibility failures such as Corel's Java Office and the apparent contrast between the network computer Java hype and reality caused some caution among some developers and enterprises.
Walker envisages a prosperous time for infrastructure Vars that will bring the internet to old networks and host-based applications, using Java and migration tools such as SCO's Tarantella. 'Java, as the universal glue, is an opportunity for systems that look back at installed legacy applications and forward to the internet future,' he explains.
As sunny as the story sounds, Java suffered a mid-term slump based largely on Microsoft's market diluting tactics and Sun's reluctance to let it go to a public standards body. The Sun Community Source Licence scheme, a half way house between open source and commercial reality, is the resultant compromise. Sun says it has always tried to keep as many companies as possible involved in development, harnessing a wide talent pool while steering clear of the leaden hands of consensus-based standards-by-committee groups.
However, while there are a myriad of Java players, not all Java licensees are equally enthusiastic. Microsoft, for one, sees Java as a threat to its desktop and server business and stands accused of trying to do it down. In retaliation for Microsoft's tweaking of its JVM for Windows, Sun launched the 100 per cent pure Java initiative to stem the drift in Java towards optimisation for any single platform - for example, Windows.
It attempts to ensure there will be a unitary Java platform for developers to write to, making it easy for them to deliver true cross-platform Java applications to meet customer needs for Web-enabled systems.
The pure Java initiative is an education, marketing and branding programme designed as an inhibiting force for those that want to hijack Java for their proprietary platform, says Steve Elliott, northern Europe technology manager for the Sun Software and Technology business unit. 'The 100 per cent logo is vital, as is the enforcement effort to make it mean something.
'Branding is a key element in assuring the future stability of all products and tools for the Java platform. Before a product can bear the 100 per cent pure Java logo, it must pass a rigorous set of tests - administered by an independent testing company - to make sure every element of the programme is built to deliver a platform-independent system.' The programme is still active, letting developers and users know what works.
Elliott acknowledges that the evolution of Java was necessary and slow: 'Java 1 was really for hackers, 1.1 went into early adopters. Java 2 crossed the chasm and real work is being done. Volume is starting to increase.' But the purity that begets compatibility is still an issue. And everyone apart from Microsoft thinks the software giant's J/Direct flavour of Java is 100 per cent impure. Microsoft says that since the platform on which most Java applications will be deployed is Windows, with J/Direct it is delivering the tools to make the most of Java on the world's most popular computing environment. Mike Pryke-Smith, developer marketing manager at Microsoft, says: 'J/Direct exposes the Windows API to Java programmers.
It isn't a lock-in. J/Direct just allows developers to optimise their code for Windows - where most of it will be running.'
Sun backed up its position with a lawsuit. While the case has yet to be argued in full, the vendor has won a huge preliminary battle against Microsoft. The court ordered Microsoft to bring its Java-containing products, including Windows 98, Windows NT and Internet Explorer, into compliance with established Java standards or take them off the market. Microsoft was given 90 days but has applied for an extension, citing the difficulties in complying with the order in a short timescale.
Regardless of any further legal developments, the first Jini products will hit the market by the end of the year, with Japanese consumer goods vendors leading the charge. Thirty-seven vendors joined Sun on the rostrum at Jini's launch and Canon, Kodak, 3Com, Seagate and Nokia are believers. Sun is about to embark on a huge branding exercise and is said to be ready to spend the hundreds of millions that a saturation branding exercise of this kind requires.
WELCOME TO THE HOUSE OF FUND
Java made it because money was available when Java startups needed it. John Doerr, nominated as the third most important man in the computing industry (after Bill Gates and Andy Grove) by Upside, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist magazine, has put his money where his mouth is. His venture capital firm - Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers - has assembled a Java Fund worth more than $100 million. 'More applications will be written in Java than any other programming languages by 2002 or maybe sooner,' Doerr says.
One of the unique aspects of the Java Fund is its corporate partners.
The fund's members include Cisco, Comcast, Compaq, IBM, Itochu (a leading global trading group), Netscape, Oracle, Sun, TCI, US West Media Group and many other great and good IT-smart companies and individuals.
KPCB has managed eight highly successful venture funds.
A cornerstone of the company's approach is a focus on specific 'industry initiatives' and now perhaps it will have Jini to play with, speculates Sun's McNealy.
These are still early days for Jini developers, so it would certainly benefit from the creation of an analogous fund. Sun is having ongoing discussions with Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers on Jini developer infrastructure funding.
Ted Schlein, manager of the fund, is no Java zealot and could not be expected to be a blind Jini endorser. The business fundamentals have to be there before the funders open the wallet. 'What you're looking for is a market, good people and systems. When those three things line up, you have a company,' he says.
And with KPCB getting ready to put its money where its mouth is, the outlook can only be good for Jini-based businesses.
JAVA FOR DEVELOPERS
Java got off to an awkward start in the channel. It's hard to make a crust selling tools and the competition between the likes of Sun, Microsoft, Symantec and IBM maintains the very slender margins. Sun has continuously promised to provide more support and simplify its developer programme and has achieved some results. The Sun Developer Connection, a unified, comprehensive, worldwide programme that consolidates the resources of all of Sun's existing developer programs, has brought a measure of coherence.
The developer programme has gone through a couple of iterations, providing multiple layers of access. Steve Elliott, northern European technology manager at Sun, says: 'From free Web and email resources all the way up to dedicated engineering support for a fee, we are eager to support all levels of development effort.' Sun's plan is to make the software as appropriate as possible for individual developers and corporates alike.
Sun still comes under fire for its lukewarm support for ISVs and its steadfast refusal to bundle third-party software with its products. McNealy has previously explained that Sun is not a distributor channel. 'We will co-market but we won't co-sell,' he maintains.
'I don't want our sales reps selling another company's R&D.'
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