Why Java is Hot

Sun's radically new programming tool could shift the balance of power in computers

By Philip Elmer-Dewitt. Reported by David S. Jackson/San Francisco.

January 22, 1996

Sun Microsystems had a problem on its hands. One of the company's brightest software developers had created a new computer-programming language called Oak that nobody seemed to want. Originally designed for writing control software for the computer chips that run microwave ovens and other state-of-the-art household appliances, it had been reconfigured several times over the past five years--for cable-TV set-top boxes, for video-game machines, for personal computer CD-ROMS. But every time it looked as if Oak might finally find a home, the deal somehow fell through. Even its name was a problem: it couldn't be protected by trademark because hundreds of companies had already used it. In the end, Sun decided that the best thing it could do for Oak was to give it a new name and give it away. So Sun called it Java--a slang term for coffee that dates back to the days when the best brews came from Indonesia, not Seattle--and made it available, free of charge, on the Internet.

Seven months later, to everybody's surprise--including Sun's--Java is the hottest thing in cyberspace. More than 100,000 copies have been downloaded by software developers eager to try out the new language, which promises to make sending programs across a computer network as easy as sending E-mail or pictures. Hundreds of little Java applications (dubbed "applets") have started to pop up on the World Wide Web, the multimedia portion of the Internet. One site lists more than 700 working Java applets--each only a mouse click away--that generate everything from small dancing cartoon figures and steaming cups of coffee to knock-offs of such games as Pac-Man and Missile Command. Several leading venues on the Internet, including CNET and Time Warner's Pathfinder, now use Java applets with links to the wire services to display live news tickers running across the screen.

But Java is more than a way to spice up the pages of the World Wide Web. The news tickers and dancing cartoons are just the most visible signs of a deeper, more profound change. Although today Java matters only to programmers, it could in the next few years shift the balance of power in the entire computer industry, changing not only the cost and shape of the machines on our desktops but also our very concept of what a computer should be.

With Java, data and programs--the twin staples of computing--don't have to be stored on your computer anymore. They can reside anywhere on the Internet, called up by whoever needs them, whenever they need them. It's a development that could finally make true Sun's original and hitherto cryptic slogan: The Network Is the Computer. "There's a paradigm shift every 10 or 15 years," says Marc Andreessen, a Web pioneer and co-founder of Netscape Communications. "And we're in one right now."

The key to Java is the way it will run with equal ease on a variety of computer operating systems: Microsoft's Windows 95, Apple's Macintosh and various flavors of Unix. Java carves out what Sun calls a "virtual Java machine" within the software of each of these computer systems, thus getting around an irksome problem that has bedeviled programmers and users since the dawn of the computer age: incompatibility. Incompatibility is the reason that a program written for, say, a Windows machine won't run on a Mac, and vice versa. "Java really levels the playing field," says Scott McNealy, chairman of Sun. "You write a program once, and it will run anywhere, on anything." This, he adds pointedly, could make life very difficult for certain "large applications companies."

Nobody in the computer industry--or on Wall Street--needs to be told what large application company McNealy has in mind. Microsoft, as the world's biggest maker of software for personal computers, has the most to lose should a new, non-Microsoft programming language take hold. Microsoft not only owns the operating system that runs 8 out of 10 desktop computers, but it dominates the market for most other software as well, from application programs (word processors, spreadsheets, encyclopedias) to programming languages to a wide variety of programming tools. All this would be undermined should Java catch on. "Java," Microsoft chairman Bill Gates told a gathering of businesswomen last month, "is there to overthrow what we've done."

That would not necessarily be a bad thing in the minds of many programmers, who are always on the lookout for what they call a "new platform" on which to write new, hot-selling software. The virtual Java machine represents, as Sun co-founder Bill Joy puts it, "the lightest-weight platform we've ever had"--made not of metal, plastic and silicon but of a few thousand lines of code.

Programmers who find the market for Windows software increasingly crowded and unprofitable see fresh opportunities to make their mark in Java. "The geeks are buzzed," says Dave Winer, a Silicon Valley-based programmer and self-described geek. "It's like a whole world just opened up to us."

The enthusiasm of people like Winer is important. The millions Microsoft spent last summer promoting Windows 95 was directed as much to the software developers as to the public. Since no single company, not even Microsoft, can write all the software that is needed to make a new machine a success, competing computer makers are locked in a perpetual battle for the hearts and minds of the programming community. One of the fiercest skirmishes in recent months has been over the market for so-called Web browsers, in which Microsoft, Netscape and Sun all compete.

That battle came to a head the first week in December, when Sun and Microsoft staged competing press conferences. Sun went first, announcing a long list of companies that had agreed to endorse Java, including IBM, Apple, DEC, Adobe, Silicon Graphics, Hewlett Packard, Oracle and Toshiba. Everybody expected Microsoft to strike back, reaffirming its commitment to its own Java-like Visual Basic. But at the last minute, Gates changed his mind, announcing that he too would license Java, while also promising somewhat menacingly to "extend" it.

It was a masterly stroke, allowing Microsoft to wrap itself in Java's aura while at the same time puncture Netscape's over-inflated stock balloon. The market reacted strongly. Sun's stock price jumped sharply; Netscape's fell more than $28, or 18%, in one day.

Netscape's Andreessen took Microsoft's entry as a challenge. "When there's battle between a bear and an alligator," he says, "what determines the victor is the terrain. Microsoft just moved into our terrain." Microsoft shrugs off such talk as bravado. "Java support is like a belly button," says Roger Heinen, vice president of Microsoft's software-developer division. "Everybody's going to have it."

Making belly buttons was not what James Gosling had in mind in 1990, when he started work on the language he called Oak (after the tree outside his office window). The veteran programmer wanted to get the microprocessors inside consumer appliances (TVs, VCRs, car alarms) to talk to one another--a programming challenge that required writing software code that was not only highly compressed but also virtually idiot-proof. Most consumers, unlike most computer owners, don't expect their toaster ovens to "crash."

As Oak, or rather Java, went through its many revisions, some principles didn't change. It was to be a thoroughly modern programming language, embodying all the major advances in computer theory of the past quarter-century. It had to be "object-oriented," forcing programmers to write in small, self-contained units that could be slotted into one another like Lego blocks. It had to be robust, which is to say crash-proof, doing without many standard programming tools that give developers flexibility but can lead to unpredictable results. Finally, it had to be secure, even in the hostile hacker- and virus-filled environment of the Internet. Before Java allows any line of code to be executed, it determines whether the command is a legal one, using powerful encryption to ensure that the program hasn't been tampered with.

For all its strengths, Java might have gone unnoticed--as half a dozen equally modern languages have--were it not for the novel way Sun released it. Having seen Netscape capture 70% of the market for Web browsers by giving its software away, Sun decided to use the same, "profitless" approach, issuing one low-key press release and letting word of mouth on the Internet do the rest. It was a familiar ploy for Sun's Joy, who helped foster the growth of the Internet itself in the early 1980s by shipping free Internet Protocol software with every Sun computer. Says he: "We knew that if we put Java on the net, it would find the leaks and flow everywhere."

Of course Sun fully expects its profitless approach to turn a profit in the end. More than half the computer servers on the Internet are Sun machines; anything that increases Internet traffic (as Java surely will) is bound to add to Sun's bottom line. Even more interesting, from a business perspective, is the so-called intranet--the collection of networks that connect computers within corporations--that both Sun and Microsoft have targeted as a rich area for growth. To help head off its chief competitor, Sun last week launched a new JavaSoft division, run by Alan Baratz, a former IBM executive and president of Rupert Murdoch's Delphi Internet Services Corp., to boost Java in both the fast-growing Internet and the far more profitable intranet.

None of this is a sure thing. Java, despite the initial enthusiasm, will still be a tough sell. It runs slower than conventional languages, and the software libraries that streamline a programmer's task are still being written for Java. But Java offers would-be software moguls something no other programming environment can: a way to completely bypass the software-industry middlemen. "These wonderfully brilliant Marc Andreessens will stay up all night eating Twinkies, drinking Jolt and writing in Java," predicts Sun's McNealy. "Then they'll put something out on the Web, and boom!--word of mouth!" The trick, which Microsoft has mastered but Sun and Netscape have not, will be to find a way to get paid.


Java Stars
Programmer Gosling created Java; engineer Arthur van Hoff proved its power by using Java to program its own interpreter; marketing whiz Kim Polese ran Java's grass-roots distribution campaign, winning rapid acceptance by giving it away
[James Gosling, Arthur van Hoff and Kim Polese]
B/W photo: Bill Zemanek

"When there's battle between a bear and an alligator, what determines the victor is the terrain. Microsoft just moved into our terrain."
Mark Andreessen Netscape
Color photo: Mark Richards

"Java is there to overthrow what we've done. We're confident the things we're doing will get out ahead of the good things provided with Java."
Bill Gates Microsoft
Color photo: William Stevens--Gamma Liaison

Time Inc.