March 28, 1997 6:15 PM ET
Making sense of the Java phenomenon
By Sean Silverthorne

  "Donuts," gushes Homer Simpson. "Is there anything they can't do?"

Plenty of people are asking the same question about Java, the almost two-year-old programming language-cum-Internet starlet created by Sun Microsystems Inc.

Can Java spark a software and hardware revolution? Already has, proponents say. Can Java turn phones into computers and make coffee makers smarter? Absolutely. Can it do what IBM, Netscape and Apple couldn't -- break the Microsoft PC monopoly? No prob.

Clearly what Java is best at is creating its own hype. Yes, as the new lingua franca of the Internet, Java absolutely has promise to transform the Web, even personal computing, more than anything since the invention of electricity. Despite incredible strides, however, Java has a long way to go technologically and as business driver before Microsoft files for Chapter 11.

Just how many strides it will take we'll start seeing Wednesday, when 8,500 programmers and other Java junkies jam into the JavaOne Developer Conference in San Francisco. They'll be assessing the state of the technology and, more important, deciding on its next destinations.

One thing is certainly clear at this point. Java is jolting the industry already. International Data Corp. estimates between 300,000 and 400,000 programmers use Java, and there have been 350,000 downloads of Sun's Java Developer's Kit since its posting in February. There are more books on Java programming -- 150 and growing -- than there are C++ tomes, claims Sun. About 160 universities offer Java programming classes.

That's why there are already tens of thousands of Java-based programs. Consider ESPN 's real-time "WebTop" scoreboard. Or the Java version of the traditional word processor about to be unveiled by Corel Corp. Or the software being introduced by that allows anyone with a Java-compatible browser to send pages to either an alphanumeric pager or E-mail address .

In that sense, then, Java is to the Internet what color was to TV. Without Java, there still would be a World Wide Web -- HTML, the language of Web pages, and TCP/IP, the basic network protocol upon which the Internet relies, are much more critical technologies.

But the Net wouldn't be the same. "Without Java, the Web would be much more boring to look at, not be as useful or have so many developers behind it," says Ted McLemore, who is starting his own Java development company, Brew Moose Inc., in Norcross, Ga.

But the real story of Java hasn't been written yet. Proponents such as Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison and Sun's Scott McNealy are relying on Java to power the upcoming "network PCs," machines that eschew Windows, Word and Excel for just-in-time applets.

Other see Java providing the network smarts for "intelligent agents" -- your software surrogate that hunts down information based on your wants and desires.

At JavaOne, Sun's JavaSoft arm will introduce lightweight versions of the technology specifically designed to run on personal digital assistants, copiers, smart phones -- even in digital mapping systems in rental cars. Having Java in these devices would essentially allow them to retrieve information off networks and to be controlled by a user over the network.

But there are clouds on Java's horizon, too. Sun wants to make Java an industry standard, but so far hasn't totally opened the technology for others to copy. Microsoft, which has a competing technology called Active X, has announced support for Java -- but there are many who believe it's just embracing Java before trying to smother it.

And despite its strengths, Java is still relatively slow and difficult to program. What's more, despite billing itself as platform-independent, it runs inconsistently on different platforms.

In short, there is still a lot Java can't do. And it's likely Java will never live up to its considerable billing. Nothing short of a programming language that cures cancer could.

With so many promises and so many questions, it's no wonder, then, that Java remains a mystery to many people inside and out the industry. What is it? A programming language? An operating system? A dancing banner?

With our coverage of JavaOne, hopefully, we can demystify Java once and for all.

Copyright(c) 1997 Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company is prohibited. PC Week and the PC Week logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company. PC Week Online and the PC Week Online logo are trademarks of Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.

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