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7/96 Analysis: Dialog Box

Will Java Keep Perking or Grind to a Halt?

Could Java loosen Microsoft's vise grip on the software market?

By Lou Grinzo

Java and JavaScript are everywhere. You can barely swing a dead computer mouse without hitting a book, conference or self-anointed expert on the topic. Last time I checked, my local bookstore had 14 Java titles on display. Even more telling, Sam's Club-my favorite barometer for measuring technology trends-had a pallet of Java books right next to the gallon jugs of barbecue sauce.

What's going on here? Is Java computerdom's latest mood ring, the PC equivalent of the pet rock? Or is it something more?

Java applets, those little downloadable gizmos that let Web pages run tiny programs on your machine, will soon be everywhere. But there's potentially far more to the picture. There's a chance, however slim, that Java could be the tip of the steel wedge that splits our present Windows/Intel-based world wide open and redefines the power structure of the desktop computer industry.

Given the current fascination with the Web, people often overlook Java's ability to create applications that have no Internet connection whatsoever and can run on any system that includes a Java interpreter. But because these apps do need an interpreter (which Sun refers to as its virtual machine), they're slower than molasses in February.

Normally, the industry wouldn't bother with anything this slow. But more than a few companies--including Java's creator, Sun Microsystems--aren't completely enamored of Microsoft, so they're going the extra mile to make Java applications run much faster. Some companies, including Borland, are promising "just in time" translators that would convert a Java application from bytecodes to native code for your computer at runtime. Early reports claim this translation improves Java apps' performance dramatically, but it's still slower than native code created by a conventional compiler. I suspect this situation will improve as the translators get more sophisticated and Java itself evolves.

So what hath Sun wrought? For one thing, the company has taken extraordinary pains to make the "open" Java language truly open. It has published detailed specifications for the language as well as the virtual machine you need to support it. Sun people claim their goal is to make Java ubiquitous, and then compete in that new, wide-open and leveled market as an equal player.

It's true users don't give a fig about operating systems. They care about their data and their applications. Because they like or need Excel or Word Pro 96, they're restricted to an operating system that will run those programs. But what if this chain that binds applications to operating systems were broken? What if you could buy a major application implemented in Java, and then effortlessly (or even automatically) translate it to native code on your system and get acceptable, if not blinding, performance? And what if you, running Windows 9x, your friends in accounting running OS/2 and the art gang with their Power Macs, could all run the same version of the same applications from the same vendor? Then what? Then, I believe, we'd hear the distant thunder of a coming storm.

Certainly, some vendors-most notably Microsoft-won't play this game, and their Windows applications will continue to be native code-only. But its operating system is another story. Microsoft has already cut a deal with Sun to include Java in the next version of Windows 95 and will even make it directly available to developers via the Win32 API. It seems even Redmond can't avoid this juggernaut.

Let the games begin

Microsoft may draw the line at including Java support in its applications, but other companies with an incentive to level the playing field won't follow its lead. They may like the idea of bundling a Java-based program with native translators for various platforms, and selling the identical package to UNIX, Mac, OS/2 and Windows users of all stripes. If you ran a software company, wouldn't you find that possibility enthralling? I do, and I do.

Is the Java storm brewing? If I had to bet my keyboard, I'd say the distant thunder will abate, the skies over Redmond will clear, the Windows hegemony will remain intact, and Java will be a vibrant Internet tool with some largely ignored capabilities. But hang on to your hats, because maybe just this once the storm is headed our way-and it could be one heck of a show.

Lou Grinzo is the author of The Zen of Windows 95 Programming (Coriolis Group, 1996). Contact Lou in the "Dialog Box" topic of the WINDOWS Magazine areas on America Online and CompuServe. Click Here to find the e-mail IDs for our editors, who can put you in touch with this author.

Have an opinion (or a gripe) about Windows computing you'd like to share? Send it to Nancy A. Lang. To find her E-Mail ID Click Here

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