Trouble in Java Land?

Maybe the debut of JavaFX will be the game changer that Sun hopes for. But the fragmentation in the mobile world won't make it easy.

I've never bought into the "Sun Microsystems is toast" thesis that you often hear tossed around at industry get-togethers. Even in a deepening recession, this is a company with ample resources and a wealth of talented developers. But with some of the hottest development action now taking place on mobile phone platforms, how relevant is Java going to be to the future tech conversation?

Earlier today, my colleague Stephen Shankland wrote about the debut of JavaFX, a Sun programming language that's supposed to be easier to use than Java. In his story, he quoted Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz talking up the potential of a coherent "runtime" foundation that won't wind up splintered into different (and incompatible) versions. To wit: "We're making our binaries available" to mobile phone makers "so we can unify the Java platform implementation."

In the video posted above, Schwartz described the launch as a "breathtaking new release" of the Java platform, which is said to be the company's most profitable software product. That's the usual hard sell I've come to expect from Schwartz, who is as smart a technology salesman as you'll find in the computer industry. And it's not just empty sloganeering.

To be fair, Java has made inroads into the server and mobile phone markets. But I remember some of the more lofty claims made by Sun execs after Java debuted in 1995. And, truth be told, it was the hot product for a while--so much so that its mere mention irritated Bill Gates to the point where he blew up at a bunch of us when we pressed him about Java's potential impact on Microsoft.

But the product's $34 million in billings is still piddling when compared to Sun's hardware sales. And despite Schwartz's enthusiasm, you have to wonder whether Java's uptake among mobile carriers would have been greater had their developers also not had to choose from a multiplicity of competing platforms.

Now the competition for mobile platforms puts Java up against the likes of Symbian and others. I won't try to predict how this is going to turn out. But we heard one potentially troubling harbinger for Sun on Thursday: at a Symbian partner conference in San Francisco, AT&T's Roger Smith, who directs next-generation services at the company, did not bother mincing words. "Java has not been a success," he said.

If Schwartz is as clever as I think he is, the guy placed a call to Smith as soon as that news report reached his desk. On a Java-based phone, no doubt.

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