Sun tries again with consumer-flavored Java

The server and software company comes full circle with Java, releasing a scripting language to ease desktop and device Java development.Video: Sun launches JavaFX
Written by Martin LaMonica, Contributor
Sun Microsystems on Tuesday plans to introduce a friendlier way to write Java applications for consumer devices, an attempt to derive more profit from Java and stake a greater claim in the next generation of Web applications.

At the JavaOne conference in San Francisco, Sun's executive vice president of software Rich Green, is expected to unveil JavaFX Script, a simpler scripting language for writing applications on Java-equipped desktop PCs and handheld devices.

To address compatibility problems with mobile phones, Green is scheduled to detail JavaFX Mobile, a package aimed at mobile-handset makers designed to make Java applications more portable across mobile phones.

Sun executives also plan to release the last portions of Java it said it would open-source and outline the governance model for open-source projects around Java.

With JavaFX Script, Sun is trying to revive the use of Java on small devices, like set-top boxes, and in PC Web browsers, which the language was originally designed to do in the 1990s.

"This is Java for consumers, for individuals--not just enterprises, not just corporate. But experiences people at an individual level want to experience will be powered by Java," said Green. "The scripting language we are releasing will dramatically enhance the number of people who can create content for this platform."

JavaFX Script is a scripting language that's designed to be more productive and easier than Java, but also closely integrated with it. Developers can use JavaFX Script and write applications that run on Java-equipped PCs or mobile phones.

Rich Green
Rich Green

With it, Sun intends to broaden the audience of people writing Java-compatible applications and capitalize on growing interest in so-called rich Internet applications, or Web-connected programs with an interactive user interface.

In the process, Sun intends to "attack" the notion that it is being outpaced in the field of rich Internet applications, Green said. Microsoft, Adobe and a handful of smaller firms have been more prominent in discussions over these interactive, Net-connected applications than Java vendors, said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.

Sun intends to release the source code of JavaFX Script and to let other companies create Web authoring tools using it. Sun, too, intends to create scripting tools for content authoring, Green said.

Java's sweet spot?
As Web developers create more sophisticated online applications, from media distribution sites to desktop-style programs, the rich Internet application area has become one of the hottest in software development.

Ajax-style programming, a technique that often relies on the scripting language JavaScript, has become popular for creating the user interface for many Web sites, such as mapping services or Web 2.0 social-networking applications.

Adobe Systems is investing heavily in its Flash Player, which is widely used for media-rich user interface development, and in its associated Flex development tool.

Microsoft made a forceful entrance into the rich Internet application field last week with the beta release of its Silverlight browser plug-in and suite of development tools. In addition, a handful of smaller companies, including Laszlo Systems and Nexaweb, specialize in programs for creating these rich Internet applications.

Java has a rich "ecosystem" of products and vendors but its use for front-end design has been stymied by compatibility and performance problems, said Richard Monson-Haefel, an analyst at the Burton Group.

"It should be the sweet spot for Java. It's kind of tragic that Sun screwed up so badly with the applet performance and browser incompatibility in the late 1990s," he said. "JavaFX Script has an opportunity to redeem themselves."

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Video: Sun launches new scripting language
At the JavaOne conference in San Francisco, Sun's executive vice president of software Rich Green, demos JavaFX Script.

There are already 5 million programmers who work with Java Platform, Standard Edition (Java SE) for building Java programs on desktops, according to Sun. A shrinked-down version of Java, called Java Platform, Mobile Edition (Java ME), is already installed on 2 billion phones worldwide, said Green.

Yet despite its broad reach on consumer devices, Java has made an equally large mark on server software makers, where Java-based back-end software has generated billions of dollars for IBM, Oracle, BEA Systems, Sun and others.

With JavaFX Script and JavaFX Mobile, Sun and other Java licensees will have a much more attractive offering for rich Internet applications, Monson-Haefel said.

Scripting, or dynamic, languages have become more popular for mainstream application development, particularly on the Web in the past two years. Many Web site builders or corporate developers have chosen scripting languages as a lightweight alternative to Java or Microsoft's .Net.

The advantage Java-connected scripting language has over others, such as Ruby, PHP or Python, is that Java programmers can easily transfer their skills and knowledge. Moving from Java to another language like JavaScript, which is often used for Ajax applications, "is like moving to another foreign land," Monson-Haefel said.

Applications written with JavaFX Script can run on the Java Runtime Environment, software that's installed on millions of PCs and regularly updated. Like Adobe's Apollo, developers can use the same tools to write Web browser-based applications or cross-platform desktop applications, Green said.

The JavaFX Mobile is technology that Sun gained through the acquisition of the intellectual property assets of SavaJe, a start-up that created software for writing uniform applications on Java phones.

Although installed widely, differences in Java ME implementations cause compatibility problems. The JavaFX Mobile software, aimed at operators and phone handset makers, will smooth over those differences and provide a set of phone applications for common tasks, Green said.

"This is the realization of Java SE spanning all consumer devices and fulfilling the mantra of 'write once, run anywhere,'" Green said. "We really had to take a step back and take a fresh view of how to achieve this broad access to the platform for developers."

RedMonk's O'Grady said the introduction of a Java-linked scripting language won't necessarily cause people to switch from Ruby, Python or PHP. Rather, JavaFX Script will appeal mostly to people who already work with Java.

"It's going to be very, very difficult if you're going to try to lure people from technology that is already working for them," he said. "None (of these technologies) goes away. The question is how do they get along better and how do you bring strength of the respective platforms to others?"

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