At 10, Java's wild success, missed chances

Sun celebrates the 10th birthday of its Java technology

It has been 10 years this month since Sun Microsystems unveiled its Java technology to the world and, in the process, changed the computer industry forever.

Java began life as a programming language that let developers create animated images on their Web sites, but it eventually grew into a wide-ranging collection of software and specifications that can be used to write programs on everything from mobile phones to mainframe computers.

In 1995, however, Java struck home with its mantra of "write once, run anywhere," which promised to make life easier for developers, who would no longer have to go through the time-consuming process of compiling their code to run on different types of hardware.

The story of Java includes some fantastic successes, missed opportunities, and a couple of acrimonious lawsuits. "It's been a rocket ride that nobody expected would ever get near this far," said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's president and chief operating officer.

Schwartz's comments came at the low-key 10th birthday party for Java, held in the shadow of the Clock Tower building that dominates Sun's Santa Clara, California, campus.

Java's birthday party felt a bit like a high school reunion as former Sun employees embraced co-workers they had left behind. There was free beer, pink popcorn, and ice cream bars. Sun had set up a dunk tank and even arranged a brief performance by Sun developer Hideya Kawahara, who played a ukulele that had been built to resemble Duke, the black-and-white dancing blob that has served as Java's mascot since its inception.

That Java's 10th birthday would even be remembered seemed an unlikely possibility in 1995. At that time, Java was an obscure technology left over from a failed interactive TV venture called FirstPerson.

But with the World Wide Web taking off, the FirstPerson team somehow managed to convince Sun’s legal department to let it take the unprecedented step of releasing the Java source code to the public.

Sun still placed controls over how the Java code could be redistributed, but the freely available source code was a hit with developers. "We did do it as close to open source as you could, and still be a corporation," said James Gosling, the creator of Java who now works as chief technology officer of Sun's Developer Products group.

By the time Java was publicly unveiled at the SunWorld user conference on May 23, 1995, it had already generated a buzz in the Web developer community, which was hungry for a secure language that could be used to create moving images on static HTML pages. After Sun arranged a last-minute deal to integrate Java into the Netscape Navigator Web browser, there was no looking back.

And developers jumped to Java. By 1996, Java had spawned its own conference, JavaOne, which attracted 6,000 attendees. Three years later, the show would draw more than 20,000.

For a while, it seemed that the entire high technology industry jumped on the Java bandwagon: Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, and even Microsoft became licensees.

"There was a public alignment of all the leading players, the likes of which I had never seen before and I have never seen since," said Rick Ross, founder and president of JavaLobby.org, an organization for Java developers.

Java eventually found a home on the server, where Sun's Java 2 Enterprise Edition platform has been widely adopted as a bridge between back-end systems like databases and the Web. And Java has recently become a fast-growing platform for mobile device manufacturers, who have now placed over 500 million Java-enabled devices in consumers' hands, according to Sun.

Looking back to 1995, however, it is the blown opportunities which stand out as much as Java's successes. Foremost among these has been Sun's own failure as a Java vendor. While companies like IBM, BEA Systems, and Borland Software, have made billions of dollars selling Java servers and tools, Sun's Java products have never done well in the marketplace.

"It's no exaggeration to say that Java reinvigorated, and in some ways created, the success of IBM's software group," said James Governor, an analyst with RedMonk. "IBM learned that it could be successful building on something it didn't own. Linux came after Java, and this idea of how it could be successful with something it didn't own has been highly influential in IBM," he said.

Sun has never said how much money it has invested or recouped from Java, but in a recent interview with IDG News Service, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Scott McNealy said that Java's benefits were ultimately indirect. "Imagine we hadn't done Java 10 years ago, where do you think Sun would be today?" he asked. "It would be all Windows. We'd be done. If people aren't writing Java Web services, they're writing to .Net. If they write to .Net, they write to Windows. If they write to Windows, they don't write to Sun equipment."

Still, if the failure of its developer tools and applications servers is a sore spot for Sun, the missed desktop opportunity is something closer to an open wound. An acrimonious seven-year dispute with Microsoft, centering on the way the Redmond, Washington, company had implemented Java, was a constant drain on Sun's resources. And though Sun received a $2 billion out-of-court settlement in the case last year, Java has never gained traction on the desktop.

Microsoft is not solely to blame for Java's failure, says Javalobby's Ross. He also blames Sun's "headstrong arrogance," which made it difficult for companies like Apple Computer or Intel to contribute to Java. "If you look at who were excited partners in Java at the time," he said, "in different moments each of them was either turned by Microsoft, or turned by Sun."

Shades of grey may turn to black or white in hindsight, and while it is clear that Sun missed some opportunities with Java, it is easy to forget how fast and how widely Java grew during the late 1990s.

"There were so many opportunities, it was hard to know what to do," said Graham Hamilton, a vice president and fellow with Sun's Java platform team. "Now we’re in more of a mature place where getting it right is more important."

Even Java's 10th birthday party wasn't without a struggle. A hard rain came down at one point during the event, sending everyone scurrying for shelter beneath the Clock Tower.

But as the skies began to clear, James Gosling, still wet from the dunk tank, picked up a microphone to reminisce about the early days, long before Java's public unveiling, when he and team of developers sequestered themselves away from Sun's campus in a rented space on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, California, and set out to imagine the future of computing.

They set in motion the development work that eventually became Java. "We had all these scenarios that we thought of as science fiction," Gosling told the crowd, "and they actually happened."

(James Niccolai in Paris contributed to this report)

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