Sun Microsystems Inc.

Dec. 21, 2004
A racy new programming language, Java jolts the World Wide Web.

Under a circus-style, bigtop tent lies a doubledecker neon stage -- purples, yellows, greens, and oranges -- framed on each side by a wall of asynchronous video monitors. Monster speakers stacked to the ceiling throb with the sounds of a rhythmic bass, while a dozen scattered workstations share the mood-setting glow of an animated logo. Designed to elicit the feel of a trendy nightspot -- or a tawdry trade show -- the gala scene aims to elevate emotions beyond the sprawling parking lot on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Menlo Park, Calif., campus. Hardly a low-key affair, it is none other than "Java-Day 95," the early November kickoff of a national tour. Software developers, programmers, high-tech hotshots, and guests spill over into auxiliary tents featuring even more video screens -- and java, of course. But the Java" technology they've all come to sample is a new object-oriented programming language, enabling tiny applications -- or "applets" as well as larger applications, to run over the Internet. Just six months since its formal release last May, Java is quickly capturing the imaginations of applications and content developers, and becoming what one attendee called "the jewel of cool." For all the hubbub, you might expect Mick Jagger to strut to center stage. Instead, in walks Danny Hillis, an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cofounder of Thinking Machines Corp., and pioneer of massively parallel computing, the concept upon which most new supercomputer designs are based. "I was asked to set the proper context for Java," he says in a chipper tone. "So I thought I'd come in and talk about the history of civilization, life on earth, and the origin of humanity." At first there are chuckles. But as he begins to compare the ability of human DNA to form multicellular organisms with the relative scale of exponential increases in computing power, the audience learns he's serious. Ultimately, Hillis sees Java as a significant step toward a new era of "distributed computing," where communication and computation converge on the network itself, prompting a near-evolutionary leap forward. In other words, Sun's longtime claim that "the Network is the computer," is starting to look more like a vision than a marketing slogan. But what could this possibly mean to Corporate America, much less to Joe Lunchpail? A lot. It means data communications is "going consumer," which may enable some variation of computing to get real cheap, real fast. Cheaper means easier for anyone who wants to tie into data networks and use them for far more than e-mail and file transfer. It means the Internet could become a platform for the development of future applications, much like today's word-processor and spreadsheet applications run on desktop PCs. But, most important, Java cracks the lock proprietary desktop operating systems (OS) impose on users; Java is platform-independent and boasts the flexibility to interoperate freely across DOS, Mac, Windows, or any of a dozen variations of UNIX. For example, suppose a three-dimensional model resides on a Web site and a user wants to see what it would look like from different angles. Rather than having a particular software application preinstalled in order to view the model, an applet written in Java code could be downloaded to the user's computer, regardless of the desktop OS. Everything needed to execute the program is included in that tiny, portable applet. In theory, the more applications written in Java language and made available to end users across a network, the more a mere browser begins to look like a user interface with the functionality of a desktop PC. Dismissing the PC as an over-engineered "mainframe on a desktop," Oracle Corp. CEO Larry Ellison hopes to build a bare-bones box, free of any single OS, solely capable of connecting to the Internet and running a Java-fueled browser to interpret Java-based applets. While many critics remain skeptical, Ellison, Sun CEO Scott McNealy, and Chief Technology Officer Eric Schmidt envision the coming of "the Internet appliance," a relatively inexpensive, device that lives up to the promise of the once-touted personal digital assistant. So Java leads to new consumer devices? Becomes the PC-killer? Or prompts a hybrid between the best attributes of the mainframe and the client/server environment? Experts say it is clearly too early to tell. What is clear to Bill Joy, Sun cofounder and current vice president-research, is that the explosion of the Internet catapulted the industry toward a new era of network-based computing. Today, the Web represents the most visible chunk of the so-called "Internet market" and also functions as an open distribution channel for building a user base. Following the emerging Internet business model, Joy pushed Sun to distribute the Java code freely, tapping some revenue from licensing deals with would-be developers, but primarily to try to establish a de facto standard. Since the source code was first made available, Java has been officially licensed by a number of leading software companies, including Netscape Communications Corp., Borland International, Oracle, and Macromedia. In fact, Sun encourages developers to use Java's binary code without charge. Although Java may never be a profit center for Sun, its impact should stimulate near-term opportunities for the company to leverage the growing market for server hardware. Java is driving Sun in some completely new directions," says Anil Gadre, vice president-worldwide corporate marketing. The $6 billion company already lays claim to more than half of the hardware on the backbone of the existing Internet's superstructure. McNealy sees more. He envisions the Java language as perhaps a technological catalyst to rapidly grow the Internet for all players -- from hardware manufacturers to software developers, content creators to network service providers. McNealy argues that Java technology really changes the game to favor open systems -- long the battle cry of Sun technologists and other Microsoft bashers. "The proprietary-programming wall is coming down today," he says. "It's open and runs on any operating system and any microprocessor. Write your application once, run it anywhere. Java is another clear alternative to proprietary closed interfaces." The quest to bring new technology to market proves to be the definitive battle, even for the best of technologies. And Java is no exception. Of course pitfalls and dead ends littered the road to marketability But in the end, a core group of four or five engineers believed enough in the power of the technology to weather the internal storms, shift their perspective midstride, and ride the coattails of an unpredictable phenomenon called the Web to a well-conceived, well-packaged marketing strategy to launch Java. The project, code-named Green, almost collapsed a year ago in the wake of a series of failed interactive-television trials. In fact, even from its origins in the spring of 1990, it was never really clear where the research team would end up. It all began when a group of Sun programmers -- including Patrick Naughton and Mike Sheridan (who have both left the company), and James Gosling, who's considered by Joy to be the "most talented programmer on the planet" -- got together for a late-night "blue-sky" session with John Gage, head of Sun's Science Office. The group convinced Gage and others at Sun to unleash their talents on a specially focused consumer electronics project. The group first targeted interactive games, but eventually Gosling was intrigued by the widespread use of chips in everything from VCRs to toasters to smart cards -- all essentially performing single tasks. With a little programming know-how, he figured they could all be made to interact. Gosling soon realized that existing programming languages, such as the near-standard C++, simply weren't up to the challenge. By August 1991 he had developed a new language code named "Oak," while Naughton designed an animated graphical user interface. The team then developed a prototype of a handheld device that resembled a multifunctional remote control, complete with a screen featuring a cartoon world. The prototype wowed McNealy, but it was the programming language that caught Joy's eye. He saw "Oak," which would later become Java, as a certifiable breakthrough because it worked over a network in a distributed manner. "I had wanted something like Java for a long time," recalls Joy. Interactive television became a natural target market, as the hype of the "information highway" exploded and became the major focus for consumer applications. But after unsuccessful attempts to build a set-top box around the new programming language, the Green team began to fizzle and lost direction -- luckily for Sun, as interactive television has all but died. Then, in 1993 the Mosaic browser burst onto the scene and revolutionized the Internet's World Wide Web. Joy and Schmidt resurrected the project, sending Gosling and Naughton to work readying Oak for the Internet. By this time, the vision was starting to gel. Enter Kim Polese, a former Sun product manager for C++ and now the senior product manager for Java. Her marching orders: Define where Oak fits into the emerging Internet market and position it as the new standard programming tongue for networked computing. Polese knew that for a new programming language to emerge as a standard, it would have to gain the grass-roots acceptance of the most technical people in the software industry. She brought in an artist to create a logo and thought long and hard about a new name. By killing off "Oak" in favor of the more stimulating "Java," a new brand was born and extended to Sun's browser, HotJava -- the first Web browser to support applets. Hot.Java is basically a working demo for what Java can do, says Polese. "It's the Java language that makes the Internet robust."

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