With an upcoming version due to ship in January, Sun is addressing some of the sluggish performance issues that have hobbled the software technology for desktop users who make use of Java chiefly as an enhancement for their Web browsers.
Java is a collection of software components that, at least theoretically, allows software written in the Java language to run on any Java-enabled device, regardless of the underlying hardware. So, for example, a Java stock-ticker program could run on a Java-enabled cell phone, Windows computer, or Macintosh.
The technology has been widely accepted, shipping as a component of the two most popular Web browsers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. But several clouds have been looming over Java.
For one thing, Sun sued Microsoft over its use of the technology, claiming that Microsoft was trying to undermine Java's universality by making it run differently on Windows computers. The lawsuit is still unresolved. And for another, Hewlett-Packard and some other companies are disgruntled with Java for use in gadgets, arguing that their clones work better and that they don't like Sun's Java licensing terms.
When it first emerged from Sun in 1995, Java created a huge buzz in Silicon Valley; it quickly caught on as way to make Web pages more lively, with fancy graphics and interactive components. But in recent years, much of Sun's attention has been directed at spreading Java out of that desktop stronghold.
"The trends have tended to migrate both down into the small devices and up into the server," said Tom Dwyer, an analyst for Aberdeen Group. "There's been a lot of emphasis on both those platforms--more than you've seen in the client, even though that's where it started."
But Java has been hurt by the fact that running Java programs dragged down computer performance.
"There were some early performance concerns concerning the length of time it took to download Java applets [Java programs delivered across the Internet to a Web browser], as well as the way they executed on clients," Dwyer said.
Gina Centoni, director of Java marketing at Sun, acknowledged that Java has been hampered by performance problems, saying the new version addresses those problems.
Among the improvements that will arrive in January is "Hotspot," a Java component currently used only in server-side Java that speeds up the pace of Java programs, Centoni said. The software also will load 40 percent faster, she added.
In addition, the Java software will become smaller than the current version, shrinking from 9.3MB to 5MB, and safer to use, with a better ability to handle encrypted and authenticated information. Much of the size reduction was made possible by stripping out fonts that people rarely used and by employing a more efficient compression routine to shrink software better, she said.
Dwyer estimated that the improvements would get Java to run between 40 and 50 percent faster.
Sun's last big version of Java came in December. The product had been referred to as Java Development Kit 1.2; Sun renamed it Java 2. Curiously, though, the company still refers to the package as 1.2, and the new version, due in January, is called 1.3.
Another revision to the Java software plan came in June, when Sun split up the different collections of Java software used in gadgets, desktops, and servers. The versions for those three areas are called Java 2 Micro Edition, Standard Edition, and Enterprise Edition, respectively.
Another hurdle for Sun has been to spread Java as far as possible. Though Java 2 has been released for 10 months, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer still come with earlier 1.1.x versions.
Sun is trying to encourage people to make the switch, but it's an uphill struggle, even with the distribution deal that emerged from Sun's partnership with America Online.
Netscape 5, delayed but due in 2000, will come with the new version, Centoni said. And America Online has begun shipping the first of its 100 million promised CD-ROMs with the new version, but there's a catch there as well: Because AOL comes with Internet Explorer and the older version of Java, it takes an extra step to install the new version of Java, Centoni said.
"In both cases, it's not the default installation," said Dwyer. "The real goal would be to have it come up as the standard installation option."
Sun is being cautious because of its legal battle with Microsoft over Java, he said. "They can't push for [the new version of Java] to be the default, given the current environment that exists with the courts. They're being very cautious so it doesn't become an issue in any pending trial," Dwyer said.
The distribution deals with AOL are important but only a first step, Dwyer said. "The first step is to get it on the CD and get the CD distributed by a company in a lot of volume," Dwyer said.
Though there are issues with the divergence of Java because of different versions running on different browsers, the biggest problem Java faces is fulfilling its "write once, run anywhere" promise, said Giga Information Group analyst Carl Zetie.
Because of different browsers and different Java software components scattered across the computing landscape, a person developing Java software can't be sure that program will run consistently everywhere, he said.