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Microsoft updates "primitive" Java

Microsoft says its new class libraries are about to haul Java into the modern age of programming.

Microsoft (MSFT) officials claim the company is about to haul Java out of a "primitive" stage and into the modern age of programming.

More specifically, Microsoft has introduced a set of class libraries that offer prebuilt code for creating elements of the user interface--such as a window frame or pull-down menu--for Java applications. The libraries, or Application Foundation Classes, are supposed to help Java developers build applications with more sophisticated interfaces faster and easier.

The announcement is only the latest in a long list of announcements intended to position Microsoft not only as a Java supporter--as with its Internet Explorer browser--but actually a driving force in the Java tools market.

"My view is that Microsoft is really serious about this Java stuff and they've become convinced this Java environment may be the next platform after Windows, so rather than fight it they're going to be the ones that build it," said Dave Folger, a program director at Meta Group, an information technology consultancy.

From Microsoft's point of view, the new classes also provide the company with an opportunity to throw stones at the existing class libraries offered by Sun Microsystems and Netscape Communications.

Sun's version of the Java user interface controls, a toolkit called the Abstract Windowing Toolkit, has in fact been criticized by developers as slow and primitive. Netscape took its own stab at addressing that complaint several weeks ago when it introduced its own class libraries called the Internet Foundation Classes (IFCs).

Now, Microsoft claims to have built a better mousetrap than both Sun and Netscape.

Charles Fitzgerald, a program manager at Microsoft, says the new libraries are faster and more complete than either Sun or Netscape's efforts.

"There are no higher level user interface controls in the Abstract Windowing Toolkit," noted Fitzgerald. "With Application Foundation Classes, it's very easy to slap a toolbar control up. With [Sun's], you have to draw all the lines. Application Foundation Classes is a much deeper toolbox."

He added that many of the current Java applications have interfaces comparable in many ways to Windows 1.0 or early Macintosh software, while Microsoft's offering will result in more "modern" looking applications. On the other hand, programmers used to Sun's toolkit should be able to move over easily to using Microsoft's libraries, something Fitzgerald says wasn't true with Netscape's Internet Foundation Classes.

Fitzgerald said that the AFCs will work on any platform that supports Java. Microsoft has come under fire from Sun as part of its "100 percent pure Java" campaign for creating extensions to Java that work only under Windows.

Folger agreed the Java application market is most comparable to Windows 1.5 or Windows 2.0 than any more modern programming environment and that Microsoft can be expected to eventually add industrial strength features to its line of Java tools, such as support for transactions.

"I think once Microsoft puts its machine in gear, no one--not Sun, not Netscape--has a prayer of keeping up with them in making great software," he said.

The Microsoft libraries will be included in the beta version of Internet Explorer 4.0, due out in the first quarter of this year. Development tool vendors Borland International and Metrowerks have already signed on to bundle the libraries with their development toolkits.