Java developers carry hopes and fears to JavaOne

Despite mixed signals from Oracle and competition from newer languages, experts agree that Java will stay strong

 Java developers carry hopes and fears to JavaOne
flickr/Oracle PR (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Java, the venerable language platform left for dead by some despite leading in jobs and popularity indexes, takes center stage at next week's JavaOne conference. Despite recent trials and tribulations, observers continue to see a bright future for the language that IDC estimates 5 million to 7 million developers use.

The San Francisco conference will cover enterprise Java among other topics and reflect on the platform's 20-year history. The event is produced by Oracle, whose own commitment to Java has come into question. Developers may find out exactly how committed Oracle remains to Java in the wake of reported dismissals of Java evangelists and an alleged de-emphasis on the technology, which Oracle took over from Sun Microsystems in early 2010.

Java might be slumping because more contemporary languages are stealing its thunder and the high number of Java jobs is merely about maintaining old code rather than writing new code. The platform also remains plagued with security issues, with Oracle releasing yet another security patch this week.

But some observers remain bullish on Java. "Java is still very vital. There is a lot of new code written in Java," says Paul Jansen, managing director of Tiobe, which tracks software quality and publishes the Tiobe language popularity index, which Java often tops.

Arun Gupta, a Java evangelist who left Oracle two years ago, sees Java as still relevant, with typical enterprise developers heavily using the Spring Java framework. The Java SDK is the biggest download at Couchbase, Gupta's current employer.

Newer languages increasingly steal the spotlight

But newer languages, such as server-side JavaScript variant Node.js and Google's Go, are becoming popular options for developers instead of Java. Go in particular is attracting developers at Java's expense because of its simplicity, tightness, and security model, Gupta said.

Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at RedMonk, says Java no longer has the buzz it once enjoyed. "It's true that on a percentage basis, Java is not as popular as it once was because the empowerment of developers has lead to dramatically increased diversity of language usage." But that doesn't mean Java is less important, he noted. "Even with the increased usage of other languages, Java remains one of the most popular programming languages in use today."

"There is always a small group of technology pushers who shout that every new buzz language is better than the established languages," said Tiobe's Jansen. "This group will claim that Java is dead. This is absolutely not true."

Still, developers are questioning Oracle's commitment to Java, though the company has invested heavily, Gupta said. "There's a full army of people working on the JDK [Java Development Kit] platform" at Oracle, but he cautioned, "I don't know that new developers coming out of colleges are excited about Java."

Java's mobile future looks bright

A key driver of Java adoption these days has been its use in building Android mobile applications. Tiobe has said Android development is a main driver in Java's re-emergence at the top of its index.

Troy Petersen, the marketing lead at mobile development studio ArcTouch, sees this week's buy of RoboVM by cross-platform tools vendor Xamarin as having the potential to make Java the choice for Apple's iOS development, too. RoboVM lets developers use Java to build native iOS applications and for Google's Android. For iOS, Java byte code is compiled to machine code via the LLVM compiler platform.

"What this means to us is that it's much more likely that Java will be the language developers use for multiplatform projects," Petersen said. "Instead of Swift for Android, the more likely scenario is Java for iOS."

Java is going strong in many quarters

The leading proponent of the Groovy language, which also leverages the Java virtual machine, sees Java remaining pretty strong in terms of usage, frameworks, and libraries. "It's still very active," says Guillaume Laforge, who has served as Groovy's technology lead. Groovy is very friendly with Java, he said, so "usually people use both Java and Groovy together."

As you would expect, Oracle also sees Java doing well. "There's a whole new generation of apps that are being built on Java," said Mike Lehmann, Oracle's vice president of product management. He cited Java's successes in the cloud and the forthcoming Java 9. Lehmann declined to comment on the reported layoffs of Java evangelists or reported angst within Oracle about its handling of Java.

The loss of Oracle's Java evangelists, which includes people moved internally to promote other technologies, will make it harder to do outreach, Couchbase's Gupta said. Still, Java innovation continues with developments like lambdas in Java 8 and modularization planned for Java 9. "It would be unfair to characterize that the best days of Java are behind," said Gupta. "I see constant evolution happening in the platform."

Tiobe sees a lot of new Java development at customer sites, Jansen said. "Java 8 with streams is really a big leap forward. I am talking about industrial and mission-critical software, not about the website of the grocery around the corner or some other toy programs."

Analyst O'Grady said that Java "remains very important. All our quantitative measurements show Java as one of the top two or three most popular programming languages, and this is on a sustained basis, so not just maintaining old code."

Not to sneeze at code maintenance -- IDC analyst Al Hilwa noted, "Generally, something like 70 to 80 percent of all developer activity is in maintenance and organic evolution of existing systems where it is not typical to change the programming language or runtime selection."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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