Web Techniques Magazine
December 1997
Volume 2, Issue 12

Write Once, Run Where?

If you ask information-technology managers whether they're using Java, they'll likely reply with "not yet." Nearly four years after the Java hype began, one must ask the question, "Why?" Typical answers include the lack of sophisticated tools, slow program execution, incompatible class libraries, and just plain buggy code. Most of these problems can be traced directly back to "the keeper of the fire," Sun. For example, Windows-tool vendors complained early on that licensed source code to Sun's Java debugger would not even run due to bugs in the code stemming from reentrancy problems. Symantec, using its experience with debugging technology, was the first to solve the reentrancy problem and introduce a development environment that included a Windows-hosted debugger.

Sun points out that these are technical hurdles that, like the debugger problem, can be overcome. Nevertheless, two events threaten Java's future as the preferred programming language of the Net. First, as developers were questioning whether a language like Java should remain proprietary, Sun recognized an awkward situation and applied this past March to the ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee (JTC) 1 to become a recognized Publicly Available Specification (PAS) submitter for its Java technologies. The PAS process is relatively new within ISO and is designed to introduce specifications into the standards process more quickly.

One might think that an open Java standard would allow other vendors to develop Java technologies without licensing restrictions. But Sun plans to retain related trademarks, copyrights, and patents over Java. That may be what prompted Microsoft to write to the JTC 1 in April to voice opposition to Sun's application. Among other things, the letter stated that "It is inappropriate for Sun or any single company to be a PAS submitter." While the JTC 1 apparently did not agree with that position, Sun is in fact the first for-profit company to make such a request.

The JTC 1 voted on Sun's bid this past July, casting 15 votes against Sun's application, eight in favor (five included comments), and one abstension. The comments generally expressed concerns relating to intellectual-property rights, copyrights, trademarks, and patents. In September, Sun submitted responses to member comments, and a consensus one way or the other is expected by the time this reaches print.

The second event is the highly publicized lawsuit filed by Sun against Microsoft. The suit contends that Microsoft breached its contract with Sun when it shipped Internet Explorer 4.0 without two key components of the JDK 1.1: the Java Native Interface (JNI), which allows developers to access native code living on the operating system; and Remote Method Invocation (RMI), which allows Java applications to remotely access other Java objects. But in a phone press briefing, JavaSoft Division President Alan Baratz contended that Microsoft had also modified some of the Java reference APIs included in Microsoft's SDK for Java. According to Baratz, "Additions can be made, but must be made outside the class hierarchy." Under the terms of the filing, Microsoft could not discuss the terms of the contract. The company did say that it had not broken any conditions of the agreement. Legal fine points aside, making use of any "nonstandard" methods means your applet or application will only run under Internet Explorer and on the Windows platform.

In its efforts to pry Microsoft off the monopoly rock, Sun may have inadvertently set the Java language up for a final showdown. While the lawsuit will likely languish in the courts, the other 116 Java licensees may become nervous if they indavertently fall out of compliance due to minor software updates. That means fewer tools may be released and at a slower pace. At the same time, if Sun loses its bid to become a PAS submitter, standardization is in peril. Together, these factors may force the world's largest potential group of Java consumers, IT, to simply wait and see.

Michael Floyd
editor in chief

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Last modified: 10/21/97