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Debating Java's rightful place

In 1997 the debate over Java began to evolve from a hype-filled discussion to a more concrete debate over the benefits of Java as a development language.

Looking back, 1997 may be remembered as the year when the debate over YEAR IN REVIEW Java's rightful place in corporate IS began to evolve from a hype-filled discussion of Java as a Windows-killing "platform" to a more concrete debate over the benefits of Java as a development language.

Many observers say that the Java-as-Windows-killer debate was settled earlier this month when Sun Microsystems (SUNW) announced that it will supply technology, called Activator, to make Java run in Microsoft's (MSFT) Internet Explorer browser.

The disclosure from Sun is, in a sense, an acknowledgment that there will be no single "pure Java" technology promulgated throughout the industry. Clearly, the Activator announcement signals that there are now two implementations of Java competing for developers' attention--Sun's "pure" implementation and Microsoft's version hopped-up for Windows 95.

Java's split personality will be debated further, no doubt, since a key hearing will take place in February to decide the legality of Microsoft's roll-your-own approach. A federal judge is slated to review Sun's claims that Microsoft should be forbidden from using Sun's Java logo, which indicates whether programs are compatible with Sun's implementation of Java.

Still, from a technology standpoint, the debate is focused clearly on which side can sway the greatest number of developers to support its middleware and cross-platform connectivity scheme. The outcome of this latest battle may once and for all define Java's true role in the enterprise and clear the smoke screen separating useful Java technology from confusing Java hype, analysts said.

On one side is Sun and Enterprise JavaBeans (EJB), a framework for snapping small Java components into large Java-based applications. Microsoft is countering EJB with its DCOM (Distributed Component Object Model) cross-platform component architecture.

In Microsoft's scheme, Java is just one of several supported development languages that can be used to build applications that run on its Windows 95 and Windows NT operating systems.

Microsoft, by benefit of a more clearly defined middleware strategy, appears to have won the early rounds of the fight.

Observers say 1998 will be the year when Sun will need to put up or shut up and deliver the plumbing necessary to make Java a superior tool for cross-platform applications.

Sun is slated to deliver its Java Development Kit 1.2 this spring. The JDK adds a new release of the Java Foundation Classes and an updated set of graphics interfaces.

But the real meat of the JDK is the addition of CORBA (Common Object Request Broker Architecture) foundations, and the latest release of the Java RMI (Remote Method Invocation) specification, which will figure prominently in making Sun's Enterprise JavaBeans middleware foundation a reality.

A common debate raging this year concerns Java's proper place in IS developers' toolboxes, among time-tested workhorses like Visual Basic, C++, and other languages. In particular, a vociferous crowd claimed that for all-out performance nothing matched C++ for generating high-performance code.

Also included in JDK 1.2 will be the "HotSpot" virtual machine for speeding up execution of Java applications to speeds approaching those of compiled C++ code, Sun claims.

No matter which side prevails, odds are the first real large-scale Java applications will begin to enter the development phase at large corporations in the coming year, as Java's underpinnings become more clearly defined, analysts said.

The lack of clearly defined middleware and connectivity technology has held back Java use among big corporations. "IS adoption has been slow, to be honest," said John Biasi, director of application strategy at Hurwitz Consulting. "Sun is just getting specs out on JavaBeans. Any IT manager is sitting back and letting someone else catch the arrows."

Notice that the Java debate is now framed not in terms of if, but when. Analysts said IS managers are getting used to Java--mostly because they have to. "Top developers are threatening to jump ship if they can't learn Java," Biasi said. In a market starved for development talent, that's one sure way to get attention.