It's OK if Java turns out to be just another programming language

I like Java. As programming languages go, it's relatively easy to learn, and its code
has the virtue of running on several hardware platforms. Its strong object orientation
lets me reuse my own code or build software from libraries of prewritten code.


Of course, I could say all the same things about C and most of them about Visual Basic.


Java promises a lot. In the real world, different versions of the Java Virtual Machine
(JVM)--the software that makes Java code run on different platforms--aren't all that
compatible.


It's up to the federal courts to decide whether Sun Microsystems Inc.'s version of JVM
in Netscape Communications Corp. browsers will continue to face strong pressure from
Microsoft Corp.'s JVM implementation in Internet Explorer. That makes adopting Java a
highly strategic decision for network managers.


Where are Turbo Pascal and Modula2 now? They were the hottest languages once. I expect
that when the hype dies down in a year or two, Java will be just another language choice.


Programmers still learn and use Cobol and Fortran. A few brave souls even know assembly
language, although I may be the only one alive who remembers writing in machine language.


I use Turbo Pascal for tasks like creating the occasional .bat file, because it takes
less time to program in an obsolete language you know than to learn a new one.


I'm not anti-Java. I use it and look forward to its growth. I'm just getting too old to
jump on and off bandwagons. Might break a hip.


When Sun sued Microsoft, its largest Java licensee, for changing Java in violation of
the license, Sun argued that Microsoft's enhancements make Java less of a universal,
cross-platform language.


Because Microsoft's support is vital for any new standard to survive, what Microsoft
does to Java definitely matters. Sun has rapidly produced workarounds for Microsoft's JVM,
including an applet called Activator that checks a browser's JVM and downloads the latest
version.


While Sun was scrambling to bring Microsoft Java into line, Microsoft introduced even
more changes through its J/Direct application programming interface that links Java
applications to Windows resources.


If Java is so great, won't Sun and Microsoft both get hurt by fighting over it? Sun
certainly will be hurt, but Microsoft probably won't. The reason? Much of the force
driving Java has been the industry's promotion of the network computer, a sub-$500 PC
without the ubiquitous Microsoft-Intel Corp. combo of software and hardware.


The NC, first championed by Oracle Corp., was supposed to eliminate the need for
Microsoft and Intel products by letting users download Java applications as needed. That
would eliminate expensive upgrades and greatly reduce the need for support.


So the real question isn't why Microsoft doesn't make Java its own, but whether
Microsoft has any reason to support it enthusiastically in the first place. The NC as a
Windows killer relies on Java in competition with Visual Basic and other Microsoft
products. Microsoft gains no advantage by becoming the enforcer of Java standards.


Slow acceptance of the NC doesn't result solely from Microsoft's bad intentions.
Despite a forthcoming high-profile Navy test of NCs, the network computer has gone
practically nowhere since 1995. Network managers simply are not ready to bet the server
farm on it.


Java doesn't just have to stand on its own as a language. Its acceptance is tied to the
NC, which, in turn, is linked to the cost of high-speed network access and managerial
willingness to change computing paradigms.


So what is the other half of the Microsoft-Intel duopoly doing about the NC? If Java
and the NC hurt Microsoft by reducing the demand for Windows, they also will kill a large
part of Intel's market.


Java's hottest use these days is for server, not client, applications. The language is
well suited for server software, and programmers needn't worry about incompatible JVMs.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been working with
computers since the early 1960s. E-mail him at powerusr@penn.com.


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