Java Store: Does it finally enable the Java platform promise?

Sun's new software store is an idea whose time has come, and one that sends Java hurtling head-to-head with Windows

It's not enough to offer developers platforms upon which to build applications. Today's developers need platforms upon which to build businesses.

That's the message from this year's JavaOne conference, which kicked off at San Francisco's Moscone Center this week. With characteristic optimism, Sun Microsystems CEO Jonathan Schwartz dismissed any concerns about the future of Java in the wake of Oracle's impending purchase of Sun, instead choosing to focus on what he characterized as a new chapter in the ongoing story of Java, with the unveiling of the much-anticipated Java Store.

At first glance, Sun would appear to be an unlikely contender in this market. Sun is late to the app-store game in general, and while Nokia and others have announced app stores of their own, so far none has enjoyed the success of Apple, whose iTunes App Store pioneered the field. Nonetheless, Schwartz believes Sun has a good chance of success; the secret, he says, is all in the numbers.

Java: A potential market of billions
Where other app stores are built for specific platforms -- iPhones, for example, or Nokia handsets -- the Java Store is based on Sun's cross-platform Java and JavaFX technologies. That means it could deliver applications to the entire range of Java-enabled client devices, including not just phones but also desktop PCs -- a total market, Schwartz claims, of some 2.6 billion devices.

Sound familiar? This is yet another manifestation of Schwartz's pet concept of installed-base-as-opportunity. Only now he's not just talking about delivering ads in installers. When it leaves beta, the Java Store will give developers access to the entire market of Java clients, and they will actually be able to deliver the software itself.

Schwartz sees the value proposition for developers as simple mathematics. By way of example, he likes to talk about RuneScape, a massively multiplayer online adventure game written in Java. RuneScape's business model is a modest one. Most users play for free. Out of that audience, some percentage of players become involved enough in the game to subscribe for a fee, for access to more content and features. That's a viable model not just for games but for many other kinds of applications as well, Schwartz says; and if you want the percentage who pays to be a big number, you need to start with a big number of potential users. That's where Java's installed base comes in.

Initially, at least, the Java Store isn't meant for big software vendors to sell complex, mission-critical apps. Instead, Schwartz says, it's a way to "turn labors of love into day jobs" -- to empower individual developers and breathe new life into a challenging software market.

Is Java ready for the desktop?
As theories go, Schwartz's sounds plausible enough. But will the market buy it? Equally important, will this strategy still have legs once the Oracle-Sun merger goes through, or will Oracle's enterprise focus steer Java in a different direction?

The biggest challenge Sun faces with the Java Store is not just convincing developers that it has value, but convincing customers. Try as it might, Sun has never managed to sell the mainstream PC market on the idea of Java as a viable client-side platform. Sure, there have been a few success stories; Eclipse being one notable example. But for the most part, client-side Java applications have been dogged by lackluster performance and dodgy UIs, leaving mainstream users with the impression that Java is strictly geeks-only tech.

Sun has been working overtime to address Java's image problem. Sun's new JavaFX technology finally makes the Java user experience competitive with modern desktop UIs. Including RuneScape -- a 3D game -- in the beta program of the Java Store was a smart idea. And the Java Store itself is well-designed: To install an application, users simply drag its icon to their desktops, which beats the native Windows installer hands-down.

Still, unless some Java developer comes up with a real blockbuster hit, Sun will have a hard time convincing users that shopping at the Java Store is worth their time. The current crop of gizmos and curiosities, including RuneScape and a Twitter client, won't be enough.

Perhaps the biggest thing working in Sun's favor, however, is that the Java Store is an idea whose time has come. The Wintel way of doing things is beginning to crumble. Smartphones are already the preferred means of connecting to the Internet in many parts of the world. Here in the U.S., netbooks are wildly popular, and we'll soon see new designs based on different form factors, business models, and platforms -- including Google's Android, which is based on Java. We're steadily moving toward a computing model that I like to call "the invisible PC," which will shake up the status quo of desktop computing. The Java Store, with its seamless, cross-platform delivery of secure applications, could fill an important niche here.

But what's most interesting of all is what the Java Store represents for Java itself. For the first time, when Sun refers to Java as a "platform," it's not just talking about a language, some APIs, and some accompanying frameworks. The Java platform now refers to an entire ecosystem of software development, delivery, and execution -- one that's comparable to, but independent from, any traditional desktop OS. That's a powerful idea, and one that can't make Microsoft happy. No wonder Larry Ellison was smiling so much at JavaOne.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.