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Is Java dead?

September 9, 1997
by Zac Belado

Netscape recently announced that they were "scaling back" their support of Java and would no longer be supplying all the Java Virtual Machines needed to play applets on the 17 different platforms that Communicator ships on. Instead, they will be publicizing an API that would allow other third parties to plug their Java VM into Communicator. The San Jose Mercury News has the full story but the long and the short of it is that in a year or two you’ll be using those Java programming reference books as doorstops.

Java, the Amiga for the 90s

While Netscape has hammered the initial nail into the coffin with this announcement, what will ultimately kill Java is Microsoft. Microsoft currently supports Java in its browser for two reasons; one, its hot and therefore the Wall Street-types will want to see it and two, they have to support it in order to stay feature competitive with Netscape. If Netscape has Java then it follows by dictum of market rules that Internet Explorer has Java. But Microsoft doesn’t like Java. Developers creating Java applets mean that they don’t need to be using Microsoft software to develop them and people don’t need to use a Microsoft OS to view it. A world that embraces Java, while it doesn’t necessarily turn its back on Microsoft, certainly doesn’t generate the revenue that Microsoft is used to. And it is ever so hard to control an open standard.

The long dark teatime of the soul

But now Netscape has announced that it will no longer support Java. And this is doubly important because it was Netscape’s initial support of Java that gave the nascent Sun technology the credibility it needed to gain wider support. Certainly it can be argued that there will be quick third party support for a Java VM plug-in for Netscape, indeed Internet Explorer already allows this type of plug-in to be added. IE users can choose the Java VM they use. Metrowerks already has their own Mac Java VM and Apple ships Mac Runtime for Java. But Communicator won’t ship with Java support "out of the box" and as Director developers, we all know what happens when you have to rely on users to download a plug-in for their browser. They don’t. Consequently the support for the plug-ins format shrivels and dies. And if the company that gave Java a wider audience is pulling back, what sort of message is that going to send to smaller developers?

Throw another log on the fire

Microsoft has already removed all the Java applets from their own web-site and while a part of that is certainly in response to the lawsuit that Sun slapped on them, it also has much to do with Microsoft’s decision to support and promote their own technologies. Microsoft’s announcement of their own "scaling back" of Java support is almost assured. Why would Microsoft support a third party open standard when they have a set of competing in-house technologies? Java is, compared to Microsoft’s existing object models (especially COM and COM+), a closed environment. Certainly you can add new classes (something Microsoft has already done) but how do you, if you are Microsoft, make it work inside your existing object model. Especially when you are beginning to rely on that model more and more? Even though Microsoft sells a Java development tool, it must see every developer that creates a Java applet as a developer who could have written an Active-X control. And from Microsoft’s point of view that just isn’t good business. And let’s not even bother mentioning Microsoft’s reaction to Sun’s "Java Platform".

Java the giant killer

"But surely," you must be saying, "there are enough Java developers to keep the standard alive?" I wouldn’t count on it. Look at the Macintosh. 25 million users (probably a low estimate), the platform of choice for graphics, multimedia and video editing and a company that has billions and billions of dollars in sales a year. And Apple is still constantly dogged by reports of its imminent death. If Apple can’t withstand the digital gottedamerung that is Microsoft, then what makes anyone think that Java can? Java is slow, very platform dependent despite advertising claims to the contrary, buggy and has, according to one Internet wag, "all the complexity of C++ without any of the grace of C". The reason that companies like Netscape and Sun even bothered to promote Java in the first place is that it was a direct attack on Microsoft’s monopoly of developers. But as they say , "if wishes were horse then even beggars could compile" and all the wishing in the world doesn’t change two very basic facts; Java isn’t any good and no-one treats developers the way Microsoft does.

Kiss me Kate

Microsoft loves you. If you’re a developer they love you even more. And there is a very special place in their hearts for developers who don’t currently write Windows software but would like to. The Redmond campus might never produce a boxed product worthy of the name "operating system", Word might continue to be plagued by a biblical measure of bugs, but they know how to market to developers and they know how to create tools that apartment-bound geeks like myself just drool over. But nowhere in any of those plans is there room for Java.

So you can assume, as certain as the sun rises, that Microsoft will shed Visual J++ and any of the Java code they currently have faster than you can snap your fingers. But on the plus side we’ll never have to put up with any more coffee related software names.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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