Java: What does its future hold?

Oracle's imminent acquisition of Sun could strengthen Java -- or cripple it

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The Webstart continues to slowly improve its ability to deliver software directly to the desktop through the browser. While I continue to find links that don't start because of some weird software incompatibility, I find that links often work correctly without any wrangling or version issues.

Cozily embedded
Java also continues to thrive in places where people least expect it. Although C programmers may never concede the ability of Java's VM to juggle memory blocks and run quickly, Java's success in dumb phones, set-top boxes, embedded chips, the Kindle, and other low-powered gadgets demonstrates that the VMs can compete quite well against human ingenuity. The ubiquity also helps programmers move from big platforms to little ones. Although it's not simple to switch from developing enterprise applications for big iron to creating small embedded code, the Java standard makes it much simpler than many other tools.

[ Relive Sun Microsystems' rise and fall in InfoWorld's slideshow. ]

The packages keep getting smaller too. Gosling used the word "mote" to describe one Java-savvy computer the size of a quarter. JavaCard, one version of the VM and API for these tiny packages, is about to turn 3.0, a milestone that will add net connectivity. Whereas these motes aren't small enough to fit in someone's eye, their ability to talk directly to the Internet will make them very seductive.

Time to get political
The biggest question for all developers will no doubt be: What changes in politics will come if and when the Oracle acquisition closes? Oracle built itself up by charging heavily for software licenses and running on whatever hardware the customer wanted to buy. Sun, on the other hand, usually gave away the software for free and made some of the money back by selling servers. Those strategies won't change immediately because there's too much inertia, but no one knows how decisions will be made in the future.

Some argue that Oracle's past success with hefty licensing fees will only encourage Ellison to try similar techniques with Sun. Perhaps the sales force is salivating at the chance to start ratcheting up the licensing fees for using Java in places where it was previously free. Many enterprises would rather pay $100, $200, or even $1 million per CPU to avoid recoding their Java EE applications.

Cynics point out that Oracle could easily craft new versions of the VM with different performance curves for different markets. The desktop VM might stay free, and Oracle might even pay box makers to push it and JavaFX, while the enhancements for handling extreme multithreading might be very, very expensive. There are many ways to squeeze money from the people because license fees are often much cheaper than getting your recalcitrant programmers to first learn a new language and then rewrite the code base.

But others quickly point out that Oracle avoided this tack in the past. One source close to Sleepycat, the open source database company acquired by Oracle in 2006, says that Oracle roughly doubled the size of the engineering team and left all of the dual-licensing scheme intact. The software remains available with either an open source or commercial license. If Oracle treats Java like Sleepycat, the community licensing and other options will remain as free and widely available as before, but there will be more engineers improving the code.

Deeper questions remain about long-term relationships with other major Java partners. Google continues to support Apache Harmony, a pile of code that seems devoted to undermining Sun's position in the center of the universe without scaring any programmers away from the platform. Other versions of the JVM are old news. IBM lost out on the bidding war for Sun and now finds itself in even greater competition with Oracle. IBM created the Eclipse development tool and could also start to pull the platform in yet a third direction.

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