Sun Microsystems celebrated the fifth birthday of its Java programming language last week at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco where it was first announced to the world.
The vendor's offering has grown from humble beginnings with a thousand or so beta sites under its belt to almost unmatched popularity, although question marks still continue to hang over Sun's stewardship of its baby.
Java started its commercial life as a programming language for developing client packages that would run on any operating system or processor, but within a couple of years Sun started pushing it as a tool for writing back-end applications.
It is now looking to penetrate the up and coming wireless sector and to make Java a major player in set-top boxes, cars, cell phones and other non-PC devices.
According to Mark Driver, an analyst at Gartner, Java is now mature and industry momentum is growing behind the revamped Java 2 Micro Edition. As a result, he expects a number of vendors to release a range of Java-enabled devices from the second half of this year and throughout 2001. This will closely match the explosive growth in internet access devices.
But on top of the challenges Sun faces in trying to exploit the gadget market, it must also find a way of encouraging programmers to think of Java first, rather than Windows, when building their applications.
Rikki Kirzner, an analyst at IDC, estimates that the number of Java developer seats grew to 1.3 million last year from 789,000 in 1998, and estimates that this will rise to 1.9 million by the end of this year and to 4.4 million by 2003.
He adds that the implementation of Java packages has increased faster than those written in any other programming language with the exception of Microsoft's Visual Basic (VB), but that it may soon even overtake VB.
Over the last year, however, the language has lost popularity among the open source community, the work of which underpins so many of the standard technologies of the internet, and which Sun is keen to woo. This vocal group of developers believe that the source code to software should be made publicly available and open to modification.
Critics within this community accuse Sun of turning its back on any true standardisation efforts by retaining too much control over Java. Some major vendors, especially Microsoft, have also jumped on the bandwagon and are pushing for de jure standards ratified by a legitimate standards body.
This is despite Sun's commitment, for the time being at least, to continue deciding on Java's technical future via its consultative Java Community Process (JCP).
Pat Sueltz, president of Sun's software products and platforms group, who moved to the vendor from IBM last autumn, claimed that letting Java go would be an evolutionary process. Sun has retained such a tight hold over the language to nurture it and ensure it did not splinter, while at the same time trying to ensure innovation continued, she said.
"We did the same thing with the network file system with Solaris [Sun's Unix operating system] and just turned that over to the standards body. We are very committed to open standards. What we are committed to is compatibility. What I don't want to have happen is see Java take off in a way that would cause a fragmentation of this great technology powering the internet," she said.
But Sun does appear to be loosening its grip on the JCP a little bit. At JavaOne, it announced the creation of two executive committees to oversee the body: one handling desktop and server development, and the other dealing with the embedded space.
The first committee is currently developing a new application programming interface (API), the Java API for XML Messaging, because, Sueltz said, Java and XML fit together like a "hand and glove". The aim is to come up with a specification to enable developers to build Java-based ecommerce software that can generate and exchange messages using XML.
But according to Gartner, growing industry support for Sun's Java 2 Enterprise Edition specification for developing server based applications is testament to the proposed changes to the JCP. Such modifications seem to have quieted the concerns of many software firms over Sun's perceived role as "benevolent dictator" and standard bearer of Java technology.
Driver points out that, although the changes do not create a total democracy, they do provide JCP members, such as IBM and Oracle, with more input and control over Java's evolution. "As Java continues its inroads into the ebusiness efforts of mainstream IT organisations, a predictable and steady evolution becomes preferable over the rapid rate of change in the past years," he said.
He added that although the JCP had yet to realise any "real world" value, many software firms are now giving Sun the benefit of the doubt. "With minor exceptions, for example, Hewlett Packard's Chai [an embedded Java rival], significant defections or fragmentation among Java users have not occurred," he said.
But if the proposed modifications to the JCP fail to create and foster a more democratic and collaborative environment for enhancing Java's functionality, users can expect to see more aggressive efforts to introduce compliant clones that are free of Sun's intellectual property.
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