So why did they decide to call it Java?

The choice of this trademark is legendary, but how and why Sun eventually "went for coffee" is something of a lingering mystery -- even to those involved

Sun Microsystems' chief Scott McNealy will tell you at the drop of a hat that "Java is probably a bigger brand name than Sun itself." And, of course, he is right. When Time magazine called Java one of the Ten Best Products of 1995 (the only computer-related entry on the list), a new American marketing legend was born. Who's to say whether Sun's prized technology would have fared so well if its name had remained "Oak" or "Greentalk"?

We all know the story: Give away an elegant, open programming environment and the world will beat a path to your door. No sweat, no matter what you decide to call it. The people charged with establishing a brand identity for Sun's lingua franca for next-generation application developers, though, decided upon a coffee metaphor for their trademark. Oak, the previous name, was taken. Why they did so, by their own accounts, is still something of a mystery.

To find out the true story behind the Java name, JavaWorld interviewed several of the key people at Sun involved in the naming process. Their accounts appear below. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Brainstorming a trademark -- seven perspectives

"The lawyers had told us that we couldn't use the name 'OAK' because [it was already trademarked by] Oak Technologies," said Frank Yellin, a senior engineer at Sun. "So a brainstorming session was held to come up with ideas for a new name. The session was attended by all members of what was then called the Live Oak group, those of us actively working on the new language. The end result was that about ten possible names were chosen. They were then submitted to the legal department. Three of them came back clean: Java, DNA, and Silk. No one remembers who first came up with the name 'Java.' Only one person, to the best of my knowledge, has ever suggested in public to being the creator of the name."

Frank Yellin's complete remarks

"I named Java," said Kim Polese, then the Oak product manager and now CEO of Marimba Inc. "I spent a lot of time and energy on naming Java because I wanted to get precisely the right name. I wanted something that reflected the essence of the technology: dynamic, revolutionary, lively, fun. Because this programming language was so unique, I was determined to avoid nerdy names. I also didn't want anything with 'Net' or 'Web' in it, because I find those names very forgettable. I wanted something that was cool, unique, and easy to spell and fun to say.

"I gathered the team together in a room, wrote up on the whiteboard words like 'dynamic,' 'alive,' 'jolt,' 'impact,' 'revolutionary,' et cetera, and led the group in brainstorming," Polese said. "The name [Java] emerged during that session. Other names included DNA, Silk, Ruby, and WRL, for WebRunner Language -- yuck!"

Kim Polese's complete remarks.

"I believe the [brainstorming] meeting was held around January of 1995," said Sami Shaio, a Sun engineer at the time, who has since become a founding partner of Marimba. "It's actually hard to say where 'Java' first came from, but it ended up on the list of candidates we chose ... along with Silk, Lyric, Pepper, NetProse, Neon, and a host of others too embarrassing to mention."

Sami Shaio's complete remarks.

"Some other candidates were WebDancer and WebSpinner," said Chris Warth, an engineer on the project from its inception and currently a consultant at JavaSoft. "Although marketing wanted a name that implied an association with the Web or the Net, I think we did very well to pick a name that wasn't associated with either one. Java is likely to find a true home in applications far from the Internet, so it's best that it wasn't pigeonholed early."

Chris Warth's complete remarks.

"The name 'Java' originated in a meeting where about a dozen people got together to brainstorm," said James Gosling, a vice president and fellow of Sun, and the author of Oak. "The meeting, arranged by Kim Polese, was fundamentally continuous wild craziness. Lots of people just yelled out words. Who yelled out what first is unknowable and unimportant. It felt like half of the words in the dictionary were yelled out at one time or another. There was a lot of: 'I like this because...' and 'I don't like that because...' And in the end we whittled it down to a list of about a dozen names and handed it off to the lawyers."

James Gosling's complete remarks.

"We were really disgusted and tired from all the marathon hacking we'd been doing at the time, and we still hadn't found a name that we could use," said Sun engineer Timothy Lindholm. "We were pressed for time, as adopting a new name meant a lot of work, and we had releases coming up. So we set up a meeting to thrash out a list of names.... The meeting went on for quite a while, and I remember there wasn't anything that jumped out as obviously the right thing to do. We were talking in despair about dumb names like Rover. We ended up with a final list, and Java was one of the top choices along with Silk, as in what you spin webs with. I do not remember there being a particular champion of Java.... Among the people of the original group that I've talked to about this, most deny any memory of Java being anything but something that bubbled out of the group dynamic."

Timothy Lindholm's complete remarks.

"I believe the name was first suggested by Chris Warth," said Arthur van Hoff, a senior engineer on the project and now CTO of Marimba Inc. "We had been in the meeting for hours and, while he was drinking a cup of Peet's Java, he picked 'Java' as an example of yet another name that would never work. The initial reaction was mixed. I believe the final candidates were Silk, DNA, and Java, however. I suggested Lingua Java, but that didn't make it.... We could not trademark the other names, so Java ended up being the name of choice. In the end, our marketing person, Kim Polese, finally decided to go ahead with it."

Arthur van Hoff's complete remarks.

Deciding to go for coffee

"I test-marketed the names at parties, and on my friends and family members," Polese recalled. "And Java got the most positive reactions of all the candidates. Because it wasn't certain that we would get any of the names cleared through trademark, I selected about three or four and worked with the lawyers on clearing them. Java passed, and it was my favorite, so I named the language Java and subsequently named the browser HotJava, a much better name than WebRunner. The engineers had a hard time parting with Oak, but they finally got used to it.... I felt that branding was very important, because I wanted Java to be a standard. So I focused on building a very strong brand for Java."

"We held a final meeting to vote on the name," said Yellin. "Every person got to rank Java, DNA, and Silk in order of their preference. The same name that got the most 'most-favorite votes' also got the most 'least-favorite' votes. So it was dropped. And of the remaining two, Java got the most votes. So it became the preferred name."

"It came down to Silk or Java, and Java won out," Shaio remembered. "James Gosling seemed to favor Java over Silk. Kim Polese had the final say over the name, since she was the product manager. But most decisions back then were done by everyone kind of agreeing, and then someone would just say, 'OK, this is what we're doing.'"

"I can tell you precisely about the decision to choose the name," said Eric Schmidt, Sun's chief technology officer. "We met in early 1995 at 100 Hamilton in one of our standard operating reviews for little businesses like Oak. Bert Sutherland was the senior manager at the time -- he worked for me -- and he and Kim and a few others including James were there. Kim presented that: one, we had to choose a new name now, and two, Oak -- which we were all used to -- was taken. As I recall, she proposed two names, Java and Silk. Of the two, she strongly preferred Java and represented that the [Live Oak] team was in agreement. Bert and I decided to approve her recommendation, and the decision was made. For those reasons I believe it is correct to give Kim the credit for the name. She presented it and sold it, and then made it happen in marketing."

Eric Schmidt's complete remarks.

"I do seem to recall that Kim [Polese] was initially lukewarm on the name 'Java,'" recalled Warth. "At the time we were also trying to rename our browser from WebRunner -- which had been already taken by Taligent -- to something that wasn't already trademarked. Kim wanted things like WebSpinner or even WebDancer, something that would make it clear that this was a World Wide Web product. The trademark search was done, and after several weeks a short list of cleared names came back.... There seemed to be an endless series of meetings and approvals that were necessary -- as if the name were actually meaningful.

"At the time Kim wanted us to hold up the release so we could find a better name than Java, but she was overruled by the engineers, especially James and Arthur [van Hoff] and myself," Warth said. "At one point James said we were going to go with Java and HotJava, and Kim sent some e-mail asking us to wait for other names that might clear. James wrote back and said 'no,' we were going with what we had. And we just did a very quick set of renames in the source code and put the release out.... In the end, I think the marketeers and vice presidents had far less to say about the name than the engineers who were dying to get something out the door."

"I think Kim is rewriting history a bit when she suggests that she picked this name for some savvy marketing reason," Warth said. "We ended up with this name because we ran out of options and we wanted to get our product out. The marketing justifications came later."

"If Arthur's recollections are accurate (and I have no reason to doubt them) then Chris named the language Java," said Bob Weisblatt, the Java group's self-described "technical writer and margarita master" who now works at Active Software. "I don't remember who first yelled out the name Java -- Chris always had a cup of coffee handy so it makes sense that he'd be the one. Of one thing I am certain: Kim did not name the language Java."

Incidentally, Warth noted that Java was actually the third name for the language. "When we were working on the Green project, James first called it "Greentalk" and the file extension was ".gt"," Warth said. "Then it became "Oak" for several years and only relatively recently was it called "Java."

Sleepless in Palo Alto

"I don't claim to be the one who first suggested the name," said Warth when questioned about van Hoff's statement. "It definitely was Peet's Java [we were drinking], but it might have been me or James [Gosling] or someone else. I just don't recall exactly who said it.

"The feeling amongst myself and James and the other engineers was that we could call it 'xyzzy' and it would still be popular," Warth added. "In the end it doesn't matter who originally suggested the name, because it ultimately was a group decision -- perhaps helped along by a handful of caffeinated people."

"I think that the extent to which the people involved have considered the history of Java's name without arriving at any generally agreed-upon resolution shows that the naming of Java was not done by some heroic individual, but was a by-product of a creative and driven group trying very hard to achieve their goals, of which this name was a part," concluded Lindholm. "I would encourage you not to strive beyond what is reasonable in ascribing the naming of Java to an individual. That is simply not the way things worked in those days. Don't be fooled by how individuals and the media have subsequently filtered many elements of Java's creation to fit their own ends."

Kieron Murphy is a freelance technology writer living in New York City.

This story, "So why did they decide to call it Java?" was originally published by JavaWorld.


Copyright © 1996 IDG Communications, Inc.

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