Why Java is hot

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. Designed originally 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 couldnıt 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 they 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 Sunıs 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 little
dancing cartoon figures and steaming cups of coffee to knock-offs of games
such as Pac-Man and Missile Command. Several leading venues on the
Internet, including c|net and Time Warnerıs 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 Java matters only to programmers
right now, 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, Appleıs 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 wonıt 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 eight 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 of
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 weıve 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 Valley­based programmer and
self-described geek. "Itıs 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 Javaıs aura
while at the same time puncturing Netscapeıs over-inflated stock balloon.
The market reacted strongly. Sunıs stock price jumped sharply; Netscape's
fell more than $28, or 18%, in one day.

Netscape's Andreessen took Microsoftıs entry as a challenge. "In a fight
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.
"Everybodyıs 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
didnıt 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 hasnıt 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

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 Sunıs 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 more slowly than conventional languages,
and the software libraries that streamline a programmerıs task are still
being written for Java. But Java offers would-be software moguls something
no other programming environment can: a way to bypass completely the
software-industry middlemen. "These wonderfully brilliant Marc Andreessens
will stay up all night eating Twinkies, drinking Jolt and writing in
Java," predicts Sunıs McNealy. "Then theyıll 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.