So why did they decide to call it Java?

The technology is legendary, but how and why Sun Microsystems eventually settled on the name 'Java' was always something of a mystery—even to those involved.

java / coffee / beans
Matthew Hamm (CC BY 2.0)

When Time magazine called Java one of the 10 best products of 1995, a new American marketing legend was born. Who's to say whether Sun Microsystems' prized technology would have fared so well if its name had remained Oak or Greentalk, two of the earlier choices.

We all know the story: Give away an elegant, open source 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 programming language for next-generation application developers, though, decided upon a coffee metaphor for their trademark. Oak, the previous name, was taken. But why they chose Java by their own accounts, was something of a mystery.

This group interview, originally published by JavaWorld in 1996, offers a fascinating look back on how Java got its name. 

How Java became Java

"The lawyers had told us that we couldn't use the name 'OAK'," said Frank Yellin, then a senior engineer at Sun. That name was already trademarked by Oak Technologies:

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 10 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.

Kim Polese, who was the Oak product manager at the time, remembers things differently. "I named Java," she said:

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!"

Sami Shaio, then a Sun engineer, recalls the brainstorming meeting, held sometime around January of 1995. "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."

"Some other candidates were WebDancer and WebSpinner," said Chris Warth, who was an engineer on the project from its inception:

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.

James Gosling, Java's creator, remembers that the name originated in a meeting where "about a dozen people got together to brainstorm."

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.

"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 Timothy Lindholm, an engineer on the project:

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 ... 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.

"I believe the name was first suggested by Chris Warth," said Arthur van Hoff, then a senior engineer:

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.

How they landed on 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.

Yellin recalled a final meeting to vote on the name:

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, "Okay, this is what we're doing."

Eric Schmidt, then Sun's chief technology officer, said he was certain about the origin of the name:

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 [Gosling] 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.

But, "I do seem to recall that Kim was initially lukewarm on the name 'Java,'" recalled Chris 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.

"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 email 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 added. "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."

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 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."

Timothy Lindholm, the engineer, concluded:

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." 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.
Original interview and story by Kieron Murphy for JavaWorld, 1996. Updated for InfoWorld, 2022.

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