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Java: Hypermedia or Still Hype?

-- by Eileen McCooey and Diganta Majumder

Java is still little more than a scripting language for the Internet. So why does it get so much attention? The answer: Hardware manufacturers and software developers love the idea of a complete, viable, Internet-friendly environment that didn't come from Microsoft. And of course the media can't resist the puns.

Whatever the reasons, Sun Microsystems' offering has generated quite a buzz in recent months. Hype aside, however, most users have had little exposure to it beyond the eye-popping animation it's ushered onto the Web.

All that may change as Java goes mainstream. And it seems headed that way, thanks to growing vendor support. Even corporate giant IBM has declared its intention "to spearhead the movement of Java into the business arena."

"If you wanted somebody to drive the market and create visibility, who better than IBM?" asked Greg Blatnik, vice president of Redwood City, Calif.-based Zona Research. Specifically, IBM is adding Java support to its key products, working on development tools to create Java applications and collaborating on frameworks that can be used to build business applications.

Corel is even more enthusiastic, touting Java as "the operating system for the next 10 years." The company has introduced Corel Office for Java, which it says is the first personal productivity suite written entirely in Java. At press time, a beta version adding presentation and personal information modules was scheduled to ship in December.

On the hardware end, there's already been a lot of activity. Lean, network-centric Java is the ideal environment for the new breed of machines-variously known as network computers, thin clients and Java stations-headed your way. IBM is making waves here as well. The company promises that its $700 Network Station will do for the network computer market what the IBM PC did for the personal computer market a decade and a half ago. Oracle, Sun, Apple and Corel, among others, also have network computers coming. Even Corel plans to have an NC out sometime in 1997.

There's also a flood of offerings from a second tier of manufacturers who made their mark primarily selling "dumb" terminals to mainframe-heavy corporations. Now, companies such as Wyse, NCD, HDS and SunRiver are hustling to offer similar Java-enabled computing devices.

Why the rush? Java offers a number of compelling advantages. Programs written in Java require less code than Windows, so they consume less disk space and transmit faster. They can be expanded with custom applets and can run on any platform, including Windows, Macintosh, OS/2 and UNIX. The result is true portability. Companies can "transform from a legacy system and add new capabilities," said Corel's Java "technology evangelist" Chris Biber, "without investing in a new operating system that might be outdated in a few years."

Could that outdated OS be Windows? Some companies certainly hope so. While Corel initially predicted that Java apps will outsell their Windows counterpart within two years, the company may be hedging its bets; its Windows development, Corel now says, continues "unabated." Hardware manufacturers are likewise keeping their options open. While all the new network computers boast Java, they're also very specifically designed to run every iteration of Windows. Even if Java catches on, it'll be quite a while before you'll find many shrink-wrapped Java apps on the shelf at your retail outlet.

So where does that leave Microsoft? "I don't know that people truly believe this will have a major impact on the marketplace or Microsoft," said analyst Blatnick. Besides, there's no reason Microsoft can't join the crowd: If that's the way the market goes, Windows' "embrace and extend" philosophy just might give a bear hug to Java.

Copyright 1997 CMP Media Inc.

(From Windows Magazine, January 1997, page 74.)