Too many flavours of Java, say those caught in the middle

Someday, if the high-tech faithful are to be believed, you will be able to start cooking dinner before you leave work by sending a command from your office computer to the microwave in your kitchen.
Written by ZDNet UK, Contributor

Your home security system will be linked to the local police department so that a patrol car is dispatched as soon as a trespasser is detected. And the printer of your home PC will never run out of ink. It will be able to monitor its own supply, automatically ordering more when it runs low.

All this and much more, thanks to Java, the computer programming language Sun introduced in 1995 as a way to link incompatible computers and machines, and connect them all to the Internet.

The problem with this picture of a brave new wired world is that software and computer companies have been making promises for some time now -- but have been slow to deliver on them.

And now, some people are beginning to wonder if Java will ever live up to its famous slogan as the "write once, run everywhere" computer programming language.

A rift between Sun, which wants to retain control of the Java language, and several other heavyweights in the industry, appears to be creating two distinct Java camps. Experts fear this could diminish the product's intended value as a truly universal language.

The split seemed to deepen last week when a group of eight companies, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard, formed an alliance to come up with their own set of Java specifications, saying Sun had not taken enough initiative in maximizing Java's potential.

The move was seen as a break from the larger group of 37 high-tech companies that have been working with a government group, the the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to develop a single set of Java requirements.

"If the group that broke off succeeds, it would be very hard for me to see how two different specifications can lead to 'write once, run everywhere,'" said Lisa Carnahan of the institute.

"There's a bigger risk in having two specifications than in having one," she said, explaining that one form of Java may not work seamlessly with another flavor.

Sun's Java is already used in a range of computer applications, from animating Web sites to linking PCs with large databases, vastly simplifying the flow of information like financial records.

But many companies like Hewlett-Packard believe the real promise Java offers is in the low-tech world: enabling common household appliances like microwave ovens to be controlled over the Internet. Because these machines often have less room to store computer code, the Java language needs to be customized so it fits into smaller machines. This is where many critics believe Sun has dragged its feet.

Hewlett-Packard was so dissatisfied with Sun's progress in this area that last March it launched its own version of Java designed for the so-called embedded device market. It has dubbed the new strain of Java "Chai," after the popular tea, and licensed it to Sun rival Microsoft.

"We are a very strong partner of Sun on the enterprise side," a Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman said, referring to the computer software where Java is currently being deployed. "Everything we have been talking about this week has been on the embedded side. Sun has not shown a lot of initiative in that area."

Hewlett-Packard estimates the embedded Java market is vastly more lucrative than the enterprise market, since 87 per cent of all microprocessors are in embedded devices, as opposed to computers.

But this logic of two different Javas for different applications has not been well received at Sun. The company has often portrayed Java as a single product that would reduce the dependence on Microsoft's Windows operating system, and as such, strengthening Silicon Valley's alliance against Microsoft.

"We were surprised that (Hewlett-Packard) would act against the spirit of the larger group," a Sun spokeswoman said last week.

One day after Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft formed their own group, Sun finally did come out with its own version of Java for embedded devices. It said the timing of its launch was coincidental.

Still, some critics say it was too late.

"Java hasn't met anyone's expectations," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with market research firm Giga Information Group. "Sun positioned the product as the one tool that could do everything. It is good, but it isn't that good."

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