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Jul 96 Crabbs Apple
Volume Number:12
Issue Number:7
Column Tag:Crabb’s Apple

Too Many Cups of Java

By Don Crabb

In less than a year, Sun Microsystems’ Java WWW programming language has gone from “What’s that?” to “It will change your life.” Companies have been falling all over each other trying to figure out what Java is, how to use it, how to exploit it, how to build products with it. The action’s been hot in both the Windows world and in Mac OS land. My question is this: where does the hype end and the reality begin?

For Mac language vendors, the answer is obvious: the reality is that they must have their own version of Java to feed the Mac development community and keep those developers in line with their mainstream C/C++ environments. Besides the problematic SunSoft Java WorkShop 1.0 (problematic for Mac developers, that is, because it runs only on Solaris 2.4 [or later], Microsoft Windows95, and Windows NT 3.51 [or later]), this has already given rise to Natural Intelligence’s Roaster, Symantec’s Café, and Metrowerks’ CodeWarrior Java (thank you, Metrowerks, for not choosing a cutesy name!), and others that will certainly make their presence felt in 1996 - including, maybe, an Apple Java as part of a forthcoming ETO release.

And, as popular as Java-for-the-Mac releases have become, books that purport to teach you Java or some aspect of Java programming have proliferated at an astounding rate. You can walk into any decent bookstore these days and find a Java Programming section all to itself. (By the way, if you are looking for top-quality Java books, consider those published by O’Reilly Books; they’re the top titles.)

I don’t have a quarrel with the book publishers or tool vendors; it is their job, after all, to provide us with the means to an end. It’s the end that I’m not all that clear on.

What, really, is Java going to do for the moribund Macintosh market? Will it give us the means to create insanely great applications that we couldn’t create without it? Will it create new markets for our products that did not exist before? Will it convince customers to buy Macs instead of Wintel? Or will it do none of these things?

Creating Java Applets

The creation of Java applets has consumed much of the WWW content work for many professional Web publishers for the last six months. And with the availability of Netscape Navigator 2.X for the Mac, Mac folk have a browser that can actually use these applets as they were meant. But has that capability really helped the Mac?

I don’t think so. The reason is simple: given the very shaky state of Apple these days, anything that does not contribute to the corporate bottom line (and thus, indirectly, to our individual bottom lines) is a waste of time and money. So far, the general availability of Java on the Mac has not contributed a dime in direct Mac sales. It’s made money for tool vendors and book publishers, but it’s not made a dent in Apple’s financial woes. And it’s not likely to make much of a dent, either, unless Apple can figure a way to stake out some aspect of Java that is uniquely Mac (even if it takes marketing conceits to do it).

So far, that has not happened, and Apple has no announced plans to remedy it. Java has not yet been componentized by Apple to fit its OpenDoc SOM architecture. It has not yet been incorporated into any scheme with Cyberdog. Apple hasn’t even mentioned it in the same breath as Copland. Given the latter’s continued story of delay, you might think that, if Apple figured Java would be a big part of their Internet strategy, they would announce that Java support would be built into Copland. Even lip service on this issue would be welcomed.

So far, Apple’s only told us that it will incorporate Java into the Mac OS, Newton and other technologies. Chief Scientist Larry Tesler said at the recent Internet World conference that the company would make Java “widely available in its products”, such as: the Mac OS; Cyberdog, the company’s suite of Internet OpenDoc parts; its Internet servers; the Newton OS; and Apple’s “media-authoring technologies”. But exactly what that means (will it be the full componentization that’s needed?) is quite unclear, as are its Mac OS plans.

Creating New Markets

I have no doubts that Java will somehow create new markets, just as the Internet and WWW are doing in a more global sense. What I have great doubts about, however, is how any of these emerging markets will help out Apple, the Mac OS, and Macintosh. Given that the current number-one Web browser (Netscape) has become an afterthought on the Mac, and that other WWW publishing, management, and content-creation tools are never going to see Mac versions, the prognosis for Java on the Mac is not swimmingly positive - especially at doing anything to help create new markets for Mac.

This could change given the right moves by Apple, by an Apple-Sun-Netscape merger or technology agreement, or because of increased pressure by Microsoft forcing their foes together to rally around Java as an anti-Microsoft WWW discriminator.

In their order above, I’d rate those possibilties as moderately likely, moderately unlikely, and nearly impossible.

Slipping Customers the Convincer

Well, this category is pretty much a no-brainer. Java already runs in many forms on Windows platforms (remember, even the SunSoft Java WorkShop 1.0 runs on Windows95 and NT, but not the MacOS). In fact, it’s led the way over Mac implementations of the language and over Java-enabled applications on the Mac. So as a Mac vs. Wintel differentiater, Java ain’t it.

But that does not mean that Apple could not (with a hell of a lot of development and marketing work, and maybe a partnership or two) produce a compelling Java-on-the-Mac strategy that would be an inducement to go Mac - especially if that strategy revolved around Apple as the vendor of choice for the intranet. Given the Mac OS-based client/server products that already play nice on the Web (good stuff like 4th Dimension, Tango/Butler, and others), Apple could make a Java-based intranet strategy fly. But it would mean serious support for existing tools vendors and a serious commitment to developing real Java-based intranet solutions for MacOS customers.

Crabb’s Bottom Line

The question I asked at the top of this column, “What, really, is Java going to do for the moribund Macintosh market?”, still remains unanswered. And after slicing and dicing that question into its components, I find the answer just as elusive.

The reason is because the one unknown in all of this is also the most important player - Apple. As I am writing this, Apple still has yet to articulate an Internet strategy. Supposedly CEO Gil Amelio will have told us what that is at WWDC ’96 in May. But unless that strategy is a pretty darn bold one that includes some serious commitments (that means people, time, and real money) towards redefining Java as an Apple-centric technology driving Apple-branded solutions, I don’t think Java’s going to mean all that much to Mac developers.

I fervently hope I am wrong, however, and that Apple does try to gain control of the Java bandwagon to meet its and its developers’ needs. To date, however, that effort has been pathetic, in the extreme.


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