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Java at 20 Years, Part 1: What’s In a Name?

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Unless you've been coding in a cave you know that Oracle is marking the 20th anniversary of the release of the first version of Java for public use, which happened on May 23, 1995. Big O has set up a nice Web site with lots of links to articles and video clips commemorating "20 years of Java innovation." If you haven't checked it out, you should.

I've talked with a bunch of people this week about Java's big birthday, including the person credited with naming it. Twenty years ago, Kim Polese served as the original product manager for Java at Sun Microsystems. She left the company in early 1996 to found Marimba, one of the first Internet-based software management companies, with former Sun engineers Arthur van Hoff, Jonathan Payne, and Sami Shaio. She later served as CEO of SpikeSource, an automated software testing company acquired by Black Duck in 2010. She is currently the chairwoman of ClearStreet Inc., a social finance startup focused on "helping people eliminate debt and achieve long-term financial health," and CrowdSmart, which enables university alumni and students to "collaboratively engage, support and profit from alma mater startups."

When it was 'Oak'
Polese spent about seven years at Sun, during which time she worked on the overall development and promotion of the Java brand, including its business strategy, licensing model, marketing communications, and developer evangelism. She first saw Java (then called "Oak") at an internal Sun conference.

"I got a sneak peek of Oak on a device called the Star 7, which had been created to demonstrate the vision behind the language," she told me. "At the time I was the product manager for C++ and object oriented technologies at Sun. Once I saw Java and I realized it's power, I came on board as the product manager."

When it was originally conceived, Java was called a "Green" or "Project Green," depending on whose memory you trust, and Sun actually spun out a separate, wholly owned organization to tackle it. That organization was called FirstPerson, Polese recalled.

"We were housed in a different location from the mothership, in downtown Palo Alto, at 100 Hamilton Ave., which is where Palantir is now," Polese said. "Very few people at Sun knew we existed."

In her new role, Polese's responsibility was a daunting one: to make Java ubiquitous. "I remember feeling the enormous responsibility of my job, because I knew well the potential of this technology," she said. "On the team, our goal was simple: ubiquity or go home."

Former Sun CEO Scott McNealy had begun proclaiming that "the network is the computer" back in the late 1980s, but even by the time Java debuted, the network -- the Internet -- was still limited and primitive.

Way Ahead of its Time
"Java was a language that was designed for a future networked world didn't exist back in the beginning of the 90s," Polese said. "The World Wide Web and Mosaic were infant technologies back then. Quite simply, Java was way ahead of its time."

And yet, it would be Java's role as a tool for building Web technology that initially defined the language. In those early days, Java was all about applets, Polese said.

"Up until we released Java in May 1995, Web pages could only contain static text," she said. "You could only hyperlink to other Web pages containing static text. Java brought interactivity to the Internet. For the first time you could actually run little applications -- "applets" -- in Web pages."

Before Java was released to the world, Sun worked with individual developers at companies, universities and research institutions, encouraging them to write the first applets to provide more than a tumbling Duke animation, Polese recalled. The idea was to demonstrate Java's power.

"These were some very exciting examples that, when people saw them for the first time, made clear the power and potential of Java," she said. For example, one developer from Lawrence Livermore Labs created an app that displayed the image of a human body; when you moved the cursor over the body you would see MRI slices generated in real time. This app pointed to the potential for doctors to collaborate to diagnose diseases remotely. Another applet from a developer at a Wall Street firm was a spreadsheet calculating the value of an individual's net worth based on their stock portfolio, again, in real time. This pointed to the potential for applications in financial services. These were just a couple of the early examples, but they were critical in demonstrating to the world the power and potential of Java when it was released."

Ultimately, Java's first decade would be about enterprise applications and enabling the first generation of the commercial Internet, Polese said. Not surprisingly, her first company, Marimba, pioneered enterprise application deployment and management based on Java.

"For the first time, companies could develop and deliver platform-independent enterprise applications and remotely manage them to any desktop or device inside or outside the firewall, securely and reliably," she said. "This was a huge breakthrough for enabling the ubiquitous adoption of the Internet as a platform for doing business."

Nearing Ubiquity
Now at the end of its second decade, Java isn't exactly ubiquitous, but it's a lot closer -- thanks in no small part to the advent of the Android OS, Polese said. "Java was designed for a future world in which a ubiquitous network would connect us all to each other and to unlimited numbers of devices and embedded systems," she said, "a network that would also connect those devices to each other (a.k.a. the Internet of Things.) With Android, Java is now in billions of devices, and this vision is being fully realized."

So, how did Java get its name? "Oak" (from a tree outside Gosling's office) was popular internally, but Polese felt that the fledgling language needed a moniker that conveyed the idea of waking up the Web. Two brainstorming sessions produced several possibilities, including "Ruby," which would have stood for Runtime Bytecodes, and "WRL" for Web Runner Language. (Web Runner was the name of the browser before it was called HotJava.) "Java" emerged from a riff on the word "caffeine," Polese said.

"We were bringing interactivity to the Web pages," she said, "essentially waking them up with the introduction of applets, so I thought Java would be the best name. But that was not a unanimously held view on the team. In fact, when I held a vote, there was no clear winner. In the end, as product manager, it was my responsibility to choose the name, so I went with Java. I then asked Eric Schmidt, who was running the team at the time, for his thumbs up, which he gave. We had Mark Andersen Design create the logo, and Java turned out to be one of the iconic and enduring brands of the Internet and the connected experience."

More of my conversations with Java mavens about the language and platform at 20 in Part 2.

Posted by John K. Waters on May 22, 2015