Java: What does its future hold?

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

Fourteen years ago, a marketing genius at Sun Microsystems changed the name of a cross-platform experimental language from the very dependable-sounding "Oak" to the hyper-caffeinated moniker "Java," and proved once again why engineers are scared of the power that the marketing department can unleash when lightning strikes.

That era of unbridled hype is long gone, and if anyone at Sun wanted to rebrand the language today to accurately reflect its stature in the computing world, they might switch it back to Oak. Although the Java language is not truly ubiquitous, it is found in many, many different places, and it has a strong reputation for being steadfast and well-engineered. Java code may never dominate all computers or all platforms, but it is as close to a lingua franca as there is.

[ Who will benefit if Oracle spins off MySQL? Not MySQL customers, says InfoWorld's Neil McAllister. Perhaps only a European MySQL fork called Maria, suggests InfoWorld's Bill Snyder. ]

James Gosling illustrated this point when he took the stage at Oracle's OpenWorld and pulled out a JavaFX slideshow filled with a list of statistics: 850 million-plus Java-enabled desktops and "10 billion-ish" Java-enabled devices. Java virtual machines are extremely common in the next generation of gadgets from the Kindle and the Blu-ray disk players to smartphones, including not so smart cell phones. iPhone apps may run on tens of millions of iPhones, but Java is buried in 2.6 billion phones from the relatively dumb phones available for $20 to the latest generations of BlackBerrys and Android phones.

Gosling's pilgrimage to Oracle's flagship conference was just one of the ways that Larry Ellison wants to reassure the engineers about the future of the language. Oracle wants to absorb Sun, and it must still wait for European regulators to approve the decision. The U.S. government signed off, but the European feds seem to be worried about what happens to MySQL. The show that Gosling and McNealy put on for Oracle's customers suggest that the Java world will get more attention and resources than ever from Oracle once the merger is complete.

Ellison's signals won't matter to many people in the near future because Java today has more inertia than a supertanker. Changing direction won't happen without great planning and plenty of energy. But change makes people nervous and encourages speculation. Some argue that Oracle's business model is so different that it is bound to bring widespread change to every part of the Java ecosystem. But for every strong argument, there's an equally powerful reason why Oracle might want to leave well enough alone.

Enterprise seeds
Java first found a dominant role in the server farm, which remains the primary place where people expect to find a Java VM. The big servers are also the main home for all of Oracle's creations, so it makes the combination an easy match. Although PHP coders may love MySQL, many of the most serious projects for the most data-intensive businesses use Java wrapped around Oracle and this won't change soon.

Sun says there are more than 1 million downloads of its GlassFish app server every month, and older platforms such as Tomcat are still common. Many of the most serious enterprises, such as banks and insurance companies, reach for Java developers because the technology is well-respected, fast, and truly cross-platform. Many continue to build their Web applications on a mixture of PCs and Macintoshes before deploying them on Unix machines.

Still, the language is no longer the newest, hippest syntax. Some programmers grouse about the strictures of static typing and run to newer or simpler languages such as Ruby, Python, or PHP. All of those extra characters are just a drag, and some of the younger programmers view all of those curly brackets and camelCaseVariableNames as baroque as tailfins or chrome. Many of the simpler Web applications are developed in these languages now because they facilitate quick changes and rapid prototyping.

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