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-- by Tom Henderson and John D. Ruley
Much hope-not to mention hype-has been built on the twin pillars of a $500 network computer and native Java applications that can run on any platform. Sure, you may lose a few features and some performance, but you won't be wedded to one platform (say, Windows), and vendors won't be hog-tied to one vendor (say, Microsoft)
Well, maybe not yet.
Like any other emerging technology, Java has problems, primarily with its cross-platform portability. Specifically, the only native Java suite available, Corel's Office for Java (in pre-beta at press time), may have compatibility issues related to the Java Virtual Machines (JVMs) that sit between a Java app and its host OS. Some JVMs are buggy; so, the Office for Java pre-beta doesn't run everywhere just yet. In fact, it supports only three of the six JVMs available for Intel-based PCs, and each delivers very different features and performance. Access to local devices, including disks and printers, is available only with the JVM and related class libraries from Sun's Java Development Kit (JDK). And that access is slow.
Better performance is available from the JVM and class libraries in the Symantec Cafe development system or Netscape Navigator 3.0, both of which support just-in-time compiler technology-but then, for example, you lose access to the local devices. And any other PC JVM, such as the one with Internet Explorer, can cause a crash.
According to Vincent Lin, Corel's director of Internet and Java development and devout Java evangelist, Sun's upcoming JDK 1.1 and subsequent versions will address the access and compatibility issues. But for now, where portability is concerned, Lin acknowledged, "We're not there yet."
Incidentally, don't expect the hardware to be trouble-free. Office for Java alone requires 16MB of RAM-over and above the 16MB required by the basic JVM, Java class libraries and browser. In other words, your thin client will need a hefty 32MB of RAM to do the job. So how does that square with the much-anticipated $500 machine? "A real NC is probably nearer $2,000," Lin said. However, proponents claim the machine will still provide savings in the long run, thanks to lower training, upgrade and maintenance costs.