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Sun software bridges Java gaps

The company launches software that it says will compensate for incompatibilities between browsers and programs written in the "official" Java language.

NEW YORK--In response to varied incompatibilities with how different Web browsers interpret the Java language, Sun Microsystems (SUNW) today announced the launch of software that will update browsers with the latest version of Java's underlying framework.

Called "Activator," the software will work as a browser plug-in and will let users download the latest version of the Java Virtual Machine (JVM). Activator will work with Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator browsers, neither of which is fully compatible with the Java Development Kit 1.1, the most recent full release of the Java platform.

The head of Sun's JavaSoft division, Alan Baratz, said Activator was originally planned to give older browsers access to the latest Java technology, but it also will be used to get around Microsoft's version of the latest Java Virtual Machine in IE 4.0. When Microsoft shipped IE 4.0 with the altered JVM and claimed full compatibility, Sun slapped Redmond with a lawsuit. Microsoft has since countersued.

"This begins the cleaning up" of the confusion over multiple implementations of the Java virtual machine and lets developers write Java programs that use the latest Java functionality, Baratz said at a press conference here.

Once deployed in a browser, Activator checks incoming Java programs. If the applet requires a version of Java that the browser doesn't have, Activator will go to Sun's Web site and download the latest JVM. Users will only have to download it once. The most current JVM is a 3.2 MB download, Sun officials said.

It remains to be seen if Activator, which effectively lets Sun's JVM technology supersede the Java developed by the browser vendors, will discourage Netscape and Microsoft from pressing forward with their own JVM development.

Activator is available only for Windows for now. The IE version is now available in beta. A Netscape plug-in is due early next year for Navigator 3.x and 4.x (in the Communicator suite). Netscape recently pulled the Java logo from its browsers because they are not fully compatible with the JDK 1.1, but Sun officials are more lenient toward Netscape because Netscape has shown a commitment toward full compatibility.

Officials from both companies didn't indicate that Activator would change their plans.

"We're going full speed ahead with JDK development," said Debby Meredith, Netscape senior vice president of strategic tools and platforms.

Navigator 4.0 still lacks the JDK 1.1-compliant security model, but Netscape will add it to the next version of the browser for full 1.1 compliance, Meredith said. Code-named "Mercury," the next version of Communicator (which includes the Navigator browser) is due in the first half of 1998.

Meredith liked the idea of giving 2.x and 3.x versions of Navigator access to full Java compatibility.

Microsoft was less enthusiastic about the product.

"Is this something a customer would find value in?" asked Microsoft platform product manager Tom Johnston.

Citing the close integration Microsoft's JVM has with its browser and its Web server, Johnston doubted that the Sun JVM, downloaded with Activator, would give IE users the same performance they get with the Microsoft JVM. Nor would it give them access to component support, security zones, and packaged Java classes, all of which Microsoft built specifically into its JVM, Johnston said.

Along with Activator, JavaSoft announced that the next version of the Java Development Kit will be in beta next quarter and ready to ship in the second quarter. It will include the Java Foundation Classes 1.1, an updated set of the Java graphics interfaces. It also will include the "HotSpot" virtual machine, which Sun claims will practically eliminate the performance problems that cause Java programs to slow the loading of a Web page. JDK 1.1 also will have a security model that allows Java programs to access certain native resources, something currently not allowed because of security concerns.

JavaSoft also said that software to turn 486 PCs into Java-based network computers will be ready next year. Originally due to ship in August 1997, the so-called JavaPC is basically a port of Java to DOS, said JavaSoft's Baratz.

The company is also bundling its current and future Java products into a "Java JumpStart" suite of products aimed at giving enterprise customers all the necessary tools to add Java applications into their existing infrastructure.

Finally, Sun has made the Enterprise JavaBeans specification available for public review on its Web site. Sun worked with 19 companies on the spec, including Gemstone, IBM, Netscape, Novell, Informix, Sybase, Tandem, and Oracle. The company will take public feedback and release a final spec in approximately 60 days, said David Spenhoff, director of product marketing for JavaSoft.