Java at a crossroads

Java is becoming a victim of its own success. Even SAP, until now a holdout with its Microsoft-based Web architecture, couldn't wait for .NET and is instead biting the J2EE bullet for its next generation. According to Stamford,Conn.-based Gartner Inc., while only 5% of its clients are undertaking J2EE development, 40% plan to do so by 2004.

Nonetheless, this year's JavaOne was more noticeable for what was missing: real XML integration and real use for products from Java's next frontier—the embedded device.

J2EE has matured nicely. Most of the basic standards are in place, but users are still left to figure out how to solve problems such as getting persistence in distributed Web apps. A growing number of full life cycle Java IDEs are emerging, covering everything from requirements and software configuration management to UML. Component "marketplace" technologies are appearing as an alternative for boosting reuse. Some J2EE vendors are even growing overconfident, figuring that the Java Connector Architecture (JCA) and XML can help them solve the enterprise integration problem that has eluded EAI vendors and systems integrators before them. All these developments point to Java applications beginning to graduate to enterprise assets.

But when it comes to XML and Web Services, Java is playing catch-up. Because Java came first, Sun has had to do some reverse engineering to accommodate XML. Sun is clearly feeling the heat from Microsoft. With .NET promising support for XML and Web Service deployment out of the box, Sun is responding with an age-old Microsoft strategy: releasing "service packs" to update J2EE in stages before v1.4 emerges at least six to eight months from now.

It currently appears that the XML and Web Services wars are based more on propaganda than technology. Web Services has only become part of the IT vocabulary during the past year. And only in the past couple of months have IBM, Microsoft and Ariba started beta testing their Universal, Directory and Discovery Interface (UDDI) implementations.

Yet, to hear vendor rhetoric, you'd think customers were breaking down the doors to get Web Services. But, as the Gartner figures show, they are still busy getting acquainted with J2EE, a technology that has at least stabilized, as opposed to the currently less tangible Web Services.

The other loud noise at JavaOne was the sound of future Java phones ringing. Nokia, the world's largest mobile handset maker, announced plans to deploy Java in up to 100 million Symbian OS-based smart phones and communicators, providing services like rich media and E-mail by the end of 2003.

But there is a catch. Smart Java phone services will probably require installation of advanced 2.5 or 3G wireless networks. European carriers, who have already spent tens of billions of dollars just for spectrum rights, may have cash flow hurdles building out capacity. And that doesn't even account for North American networks, which are far more primitive. Right now, Javaphone efforts are putting the cart before the horse.

Then there's the question of which flavor of Java will end up in embedded devices. Java is competing against well-established proprietary environments for cell phones, PDAs and a practically nonexistent market for set-top boxes. Java technology providers just can't seem to agree.

For example, while Sun defined the J2ME framework for embedded devices, at least one vendor, SavaJe (pronounced "savage"), insists that J2ME lacks the security features and Java Swing classes that set-top boxes require. SavaJe proposes a stripped-down version of J2SE, the framework that Sun designed for regular PCs, to run atop its own proprietary OS. What about Palm devices? The Java community is debating whether a fatter profile of J2ME classes might be necessary in place of the more general MIDP profile. And the battle of "clean room" Java Virtual Machines continues unabated, with players like HP and Kada insisting that their VMs are far better suited for the task than the official KVM.

The message from JavaOne 2001? Developers are still getting acquainted with J2EE, and the propaganda factories are heating up over XML, while embedded device players are arguing over technologies for markets that have yet to mature.

About the Author

Tony Baer is principal with onStrategies, a New York-based consulting firm, and editor of Computer Finance, a monthly journal on IT economics. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].