Demo '97: Java apps show promise, cracks

Guy Kewney reporting from Demo in Palm Springs, California

Java still hasn't made it.

It's clear that the Java breakthrough into mainstream software is mere days away, but it's also clear that it hasn't happened yet, and demonstrations of the latest Java-driven packages here show that the problems of intractable software tools are handicapping developers.

For example, the Great White Hope of the Java world is a huge Office suite from Corel. There are those who say that this is a daft use of Java, arguing it was not designed to produce large monolithic lumps of cohering code, but small self-loading objects.

Nonetheless, Corel has done Office for Java and the demo is not ready for prime time. The screen flickers as the whole display is redrawn for every small change of a single character; things slow down and jump.

Equally ambitious, though more Java-oriented, is a new calendaring package inherited from the Next platform from Sarrus. It's "pure Java" and it's been put together by an ambitious group of clever people but how clever can you be with a calendar application?

Like most, it shows paper-like views of your diary, because "that's what people like." So you can't see a week at the end of one month and the beginning of the next month, you can't create appointments that start late at night and finish next morning... that sort of old thing.

It does clever stuff with messages and RSVP tracking across the intranet or Internet, and lets you put group schedules together. But writing this in Java does nothing for the user interface. Details are at the company's Web site if you want to watch this evolve; it promises to be good eventually.

Better use of Java was a classroom on the Web, a product called Symposium, from Centra which puts people into a browser-based learning environment. They are under the control of a teacher who allows voice contributions from students - you can "raise your hand" and the teacher can pose multiple-choice questions, and there's both text and audio interaction.

Symposium worked well enough that you didn't need to know that it was written in Java. So does the ChatZine. A ChatZine is a moderated chat system with a script; Talk City has put together a scenario set in the ruined Mayan city of Palenque.

It's like an adventure game in that you get real three-D views of the site. But instead of responding to programmed input from a game, you're guided through by one of Talk City's experts - not a recording of the expert, but someone online, able to respond.

The Java element is EZ-Talk, a chat applet which lets the group interact as they wander around the landscape. There are artefacts you can pick up and examine; a flute, for example, which you can both look at and listen to.

Watch out for more from this outfit; it's attracted the attention of John Sculley, former Apple president, now venture capitalist. He has merged it with Live Picture, one of the best new graphics technology producers. Also visit RealSpace for another partner in this group.

The biggest Java joke, however, may turn out to be quite a good idea: it comes from Sun/Javasoft. Sun, of course, invented Java. It has now come up with the Rescue Project. It's a Java engine that you load from the C:> prompt of any PC, and it will run happily on a 486 with 4Mb of RAM.

Plug Rescue into your legacy PC, and upgrade it to JavaStation spec. "There are over 150 million 486 PCs around, which you couldn't give away," said the demonstrator. "Give them a new lease of life!"

It's tempting...

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