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)