Java lobby gains a vocal activist

Java software developer Rick Ross isn't afraid to take on Sun Microsystems or Microsoft--and he has become something of a media darling in the process.

Java software developer Rick Ross isn't afraid to take on Sun Microsystems or Microsoft--and he has become something of a media darling in the process.

Ross, 42, is one of the most visible members of the Java community as founder of the Java Lobby, a nonprofit software developers' group and Web site with 56,000 members in more than 100 countries. With the technology's best interest at heart, Ross has become part Java evangelist and part industry watchdog and is often quoted by the media as an independent voice for all things Java.

"I'm an accidental activist. I'm not trained. When I started the Java Lobby in my apartment in New York about four years ago, I hoped at the time there would be 20 to 30 others who would be interested in discussing Java's future," recalled Ross, president of software maker UserMagnet. "I was surprised and overwhelmed by the huge response."

Java, a technology developed by Sun, is promoted by Sun, IBM, Oracle and others as the language programmers can use to write software once and have it run across all types of computing systems, regardless of operating system. Java is considered a threat to Microsoft because Microsoft has long steered its developers to write software that runs only on the Windows operating system. Java, however, allows programmers to write software that can run on many operating systems and hardware setups.

Ross was a vocal critic of Microsoft when the software giant built technology into its Java products that led developers to build Java programs that only operate within Windows, defeating Sun's "write once, run anywhere" goal. He chastised Sun over its handling of the Java standard when the company abandoned plans to turn the technology over to an industry standards group. Even state attorneys and the Department of Justice sought out his opinions as they built their antitrust trial against Microsoft.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Ross discusses the tentative settlement reached between Microsoft and the Department of Justice in the antitrust case, the battle between Microsoft and Java supporters over subscription-based software and services over the Web, and the future of the Java technology as Microsoft comes out with its own Java-like software language called C#.

Q: What's your reaction to a tentative accord between Microsoft and the Justice Department over the antitrust trial?
A: The outcome I would desire would be an appropriate rehearing with the context reframed to reflect more current circumstances. Issues related to Windows XP and the continuing of leveraging of Internet Explorer and changes in the market that occur naturally over the course of a four-year prosecution make it necessary to look at things in a new light. The Netscape focus (by the Justice Department) is almost irrelevant today.

Java programmers tend to give Sun the benefit of the doubt because Sun has done good things for Java. Their initiatives will get attention. But developers have a lot of options and are not locked into the Sun-branded strategy.Is the next big fight in the Java wars against Microsoft's .Net Web services strategy?
It's a major issue, but different from the original Sun vs. Microsoft positioning on Java. It's no longer simply Microsoft vs. Sun. We see companies with something to offer coming from different directions. Oracle has tools. IBM has arguably the most developed Web services systems. They all have an interest in the growth of the Web services economy and in advancing this form of next generation e-business architecture. It's now more like the issues in the past. Which is the right choice for a business? Which vendors and tools should a business adopt? And when is the right moment to adopt it?

My concern is Microsoft is aligning with many big companies--major banks, major media outlets. It lets Microsoft have a powerful next-generation monopoly. Microsoft has begun to show it is feeling more comfortable...We've seen Microsoft willing to exclude Java from Internet Explorer 6 and Windows XP. This behavior seems to reflect that they are confident that the antitrust proceedings are moving in their direction. If they felt risk or a threat, they might not have moved so boldly.

What does Microsoft's decision not to include Java support in their browser and operating system mean to consumers?
It means bad things for consumers. My five-year-old daughter loves to go to the PBS site for Sesame Street but will not be able to use the Java games they provide for free. Sun has come out with interesting, innovative (Java) technology that appears to solve the problem. It's easy to install (Java support) in IE 6. But so many consumers will never know they could have this.

Is Sun's answer to Microsoft's .Net Web services strategy, called Sun One, relevant to Java programmers?
 Anyone who looks at the history of (technology) lock-in from Microsoft as a recurring strategy should think twice before adopting it. Java programmers tend to give Sun the benefit of the doubt because Sun has done good things for Java. Their initiatives will get attention. But developers have a lot of options and are not locked into the Sun-branded strategy. Sun's effort is one of several that are significant. Personally, I'm very intrigued with Oracle.

What are your thoughts on Microsoft's Java-like language called C# and their recently announced J# product, which allows people to write software code that only works with Microsoft's .Net plan?
J# has zero relevance to Java developers I've spoken with. It's disregarded as a marketing tool for Microsoft. C# is a language that borrows heavily from Java's origins. I think C# is a language that will definitely be right for certain problems for anyone contemplating it. But anyone who looks at the history of (technology) lock-in from Microsoft as a recurring strategy should think twice before adopting it.

Do you think Java developers will dabble with C# and possibly switch to it?
At some point or another, people living in a free society will try many things. Some developers will be curious. Having bright, active minds, they wonder what's out there. There's nothing wrong with people trying to be informed. I haven't heard yet from the brightest Java developers I know who says C# offers a superior platform to achieve the successes that they have been able to achieve with Java.

Sun has created the Java Community Process to oversee the Java standard and future improvements to it. Java companies have say-so over the standard, but Sun still has final say. How much egg did Sun get on its face when it backed out of standardizing Java twice, especially since Microsoft sent C# to a standards body?
I was in the minority of Java developers when I was deeply disappointed by Sun failing twice to keep those promises. As I reflect on it, look at what was taking place at the time. This was happening during the peak moment of the Internet prosperity. People wanted to get their millions before they reached 30. This blinded some people to the importance of issues like standards. People were trying to get quick results. And the longer-term dialogue was less attractive than getting rich quickly. There was a sense that business is doing good. I'm not going to rock the boat. Java has weathered the impossibility of living up to the original wave of hype and is now firmly established as a technology of choice for server-side, dynamic business logic.

I believe (Sun CEO) Scott McNealy has been good and on balance, done a really interesting juggling act. I believe what he's done is allow Sun and Java to be valuable and remain largely open, but consistent with his obligation for profit.

How relevant is Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), the Java standard for handheld gadgets? Some cell phone makers like Nokia and Motorola have added Java support to give consumers more software on their phones. But is anyone using it?
J2ME has rich potential. There's a greater range of devices that people can use and interact with and can make human life a better experience. And mobile Java will be part of that trend. You may see 70 million Java-capable phones in the next 12 to 18 months. But we are at the beginning of the early adopters adopting it. There's probably a significant distance before it's thriving. The impact to the average consumer may be further down the road than anyone likes to admit. It depends on what developers build. People have WAP browsers now, but chances are, you won't use it because it's useless. My hope for innovation lies with the little guy. (In the past), nonentities have been brought to prominence because they gave people what they wanted with great innovation. J2ME is a significant opportunity for Java developers.

What is some of the future Java software on mobile devices?
I'd like to be able to monitor and administer (work-related tasks) over my phone. Show me the status of something and so forth, such as people who are involved in sales to access enterprise information.

When Java hit the scene in the mid-1990s, there was enormous hype associated with the technology. It first appeared on Web sites and is now used by companies for their back-end software infrastructure. Can you reflect where Java is today?
Java has weathered the impossibility of living up to the original wave of hype and is now firmly established as a technology of choice for server-side, dynamic business logic. Client-side Java, where we all experienced the technology first, has diminished seriously. Mobile Java will flourish.

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