Java is software that theoretically lets a single version of a program run on any number of machines--including desktop computers, servers and eventually mobile phones--without having to be rewritten for each device. However, performance has been hampered by a key piece of software: the Java virtual machine, which is responsible for handling the translation of generic Java programs into instructions each device can comprehend.
Over the years, Sun has developed a new virtual machine dubbed HotSpot to speed performance. Until now, that software was available only for servers; now Sun has released a version for desktop computers.
Speeding how Java programs run in Web browsers is one of the most notable improvements that comes with version 1.3 of Java 2. Other advances include a shorter delay to load the Java engine, faster accompanying software and support for Java sound.
Sun, though, faces a challenge with the new software: getting it into the hands of Web users. To be useful, people must upgrade their Web browsers or download a component available only for Windows computers. Netscape Communications plans to incorporate the new software in the second half of this year with Netscape 6, the company said.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer brower currently uses the earlier 1.1 version of Java.
Despite that and other hurdles, such as the ongoing lawsuit regarding Microsoft's alteration of Java, Sun has won a key victory with the software. It's a standard on desktop computers and servers and has a strong following in smaller gadgets.
Sun has promised HotSpot for desktop computers since at least October. It's part of the company's effort to return Java to the reason it first caught on in the mid-1990s: It was a way to bring advanced features to Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.
The company released HotSpot for servers in April 1999, considerably later than its expected arrival in 1997. Sun backed off plans to charge for HotSpot unless companies incorporated it into their operating systems.
HotSpot builds on the December 1998 release of Java 2, a version of Java that improved security, added better graphical user interface components, contained better number-crunching abilities and made other improvements.
In a twist of irony, though, the universality that gives Java its potential is the factor that hampers its advancement. A company writing a Java program that downloads to a Web browser--an "applet"--must reckon with older versions of Java that still prevail.
VistaSource demonstrates the promise and pitfalls of Java. The company sells office software originally developed by its parent company Applix, but it is releasing a server-centric version that uses Java for customers running the software on a variety of different clients. The software is split so the Java component runs within the client's Web browser and the rest, such as spell-checking, runs on the server.
Bernie Thompson, chief executive of VistaSource, said the company had to use the years-old Java 1.1 to ensure that everyone could use the software.
"The technology adoption cycle is always going to be long for Java," he said, adding that IE and Netscape will have to support Java 2 "for some time before you'll see companies like ourselves converting over to it."