The Jumpin’ Java jive

Java is ready for prime time. That was the message writ large across the Java World Tour, the distinctly evangelistic "educational" roadshow, which trundled through Sydney. And perhaps this time, the message is more than hype. In the 600-odd days since Sun Microsystems first launched its stripped-down objected-oriented programming language, Java's credibility has expanded in almost every way possible.

Java is ready for prime time. That was the message writ large across the Java World Tour, the distinctly evangelistic “educational” roadshow, which trundled through Sydney. And perhaps this time, the message is more than hype.

In the 600-odd days since Sun Microsystems first launched its stripped-down objected-oriented programming language, Java’s credibility has expanded in almost every way possible.

Sun’s marketing people will give you the numbers — 45 million users of Java, more books in print about Java than C++, 600,000 downloads of the current Java development kit since February and a projection that Java will overhaul C++ as the most popular object-oriented development environment within 18 months.

The numbers for the Java World Tour itself — the brainchild of Sun’s Scott McNealy and Netscape’s Jim Barksdale, with IBM and then Novell climbing aboard — have been similarly impressive. At $A100 a head, interested developers filled Sydney’s 500-capacity Wentworth Hotel ballroom and then a 200-seat overflow room before the “sold out” signs went up.

But behind the big figures — and ultimately more important than them — has been a more important than them — has been a smoothly-managed process of enhancement to the Java APIs, run by Sun and its Javasoft subsidiary. A year ago, Java was a good idea — but in practice its class libraries were well short of espresso strength.

Microsoft has accused Sun of running the Java standards process as a kind of corporate fiefdom, and this may be true. But Microsoft’s record on open standards is hardly a shining one, and, crucially, Sun’s partners are not complaining.

“As a company participating with Sun in the API development process, we are extremely happy with what’s happening,” avers Alvin Tedjamulia, vice-president of Novell’s Developer Technologies Group. “They are very, very impartial and they absolutely ensure that whatever people suggest is good for the industry and not just for the submitter. We’re working primarily in the directory area and we’re very pleased with what’s happening with Sun and Javasoft.”

Essentially, Sun and Javasoft have been managing a process where technology participants offer their crown jewels for adoption into Java APIs, and give themselves a stake in Java as they do so. Already incorporated or pending approval are a directory class based on Novell’s NDS, a video class based on Apple’s QuickTime, an audio class from the tiny start-up Headspace, and the basis of a stripped-down Embedded Java API from Red River. That’s not to mention a welter of technologies being unexpectedly disgorged from IBM’s R&D empire — including the Infobus standard released by Lotus.

“The API initiative is being developed in collaboration with a number of different industry partners,” says David Spen-hoff, director of marketing at Sun and a key figure in the process. “If it’s multimedia, then it’s people who are key in the multimedia industry. If it’s enterprise, it’s people key in the enterprise industry, such as IBM.

“We have developed, I think, a good working partnership with all of the different people who come to collaborate — many of whom in fact compete with each other. We tend to work with a small focus group of people who can really create the core API, we put it out for public review and comment, then we publish the specification. So the process is driven and stewarded by Sun, but we are by no means doing all of the innovation or technology development for that.

“In fact, in JDK 1.1, the current shipping version of the Java development kit, we have code which was developed by IBM and by Novell, and as releases continue to come out, there will be more and more third-party technologies making their way into the base of the Java platform through the API initiatives.”

Spenhoff says the obvious danger in such a warm and cuddly process — platform bloat, as new APIs are piled in — is being addressed.

“We have a concept that we announced a year ago, at the first JavaOne developer conference, of core APIs and standard extensions. The first standard extension APIs are going to ship around mid-year and right now we are working with and talking to some of our partners to really understand some of the packaging and distribution issues for that. What we’re balancing of course is the need for ubiquitous APIs that developers can target, but without that turning into platform bloat.

“One thing we’ve done recently to address that, is introduce the personal Java and embedded Java APIs. These are subsets of the full Java API set. The personal Java API is designed for device applications such as PDAs, smartphones, set-top boxes and so forth. We’re working with companies like WebTV, which is owned by Microsoft now, so even Microsoft is involved in this collaborative initiative.”

The scramble for technological positioning in the Java world has also brought some small, specialised companies to the fore, as evidenced by Microsoft’s purchase of DimensionX and Sun’s bold punt in licensing Headspace’s RMF audio format.

“There’s a lot of innovation going on in places where you’d least expect it,” says Spenhoff. “And a lot of those are very small companies where somebody had an idea and went out and tried to make something of it. Headspace is a good example, and there are many others. There’s a lot of interest and focus at the moment in the innovation which is going on in small companies.”

In February, Sun itself acquired a potentially vital small company. Spenhoff says Longview Technologies, also known as Anamorphics, is developing “a radically new Virtual Machine technology”. It was initially pioneered for work in Smalltalk and now, as Sun’s employee, it is adapting that technology for Java.

“The first developer versions of the technology, which we’ve called HotSpot, will be out in the next few months and we expect it to ship by the end of this year. Our expectation of it is for the first release to have interpreted VM performance on the same performance range as that of compiled C and C++. And this, remember, is on a multi-platform basis,” Spenhoff says.

“It’s done through some very intelligent, very specialised VM-based technology. So we are committed to and are on a path to close the gap between interpreted Java — which gives you the write-once-run-anywhere benefit — and the performance needs that many users are looking for.”

The next quarter may prove crucial for Sun and its Java partners. An application is before the ISO/IEC Joint Technology Committee 1 to formally standardise Java and have Sun recognised as a submitter of publicly available specifications. Microsoft has objected. Sun must also come up with testing software to back up its “100% Pure Java” initiative, which Microsoft has dismissed as unnecessary.

Success for Sun will entail nothing less than a paradigm shift. The move from an industry governed by the proprietary OS to one where the OS is irrelevant and smartcards are floppy-compatible with mainframes, would seem beyond the power of one company — and it may be that Java’s greatest asset will be the spirit of co-operation its owner has fostered in its own industry.

Russell Brown attended the Java World Tour show in Sydney.

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