Something’s brewing at Sun Microsystems, where the Java programming language and HotJava browser are about to enter their beta cycle. Though already in use at several sites (and the subject of some controversy), the applet-ready browser and underlying object-oriented language were formally unveiled at the Solaris Developer and Networking Conference Netropolis opener on May 23 in San Francisco (and via satellite at Sun headquarters in Kirkland, WA).

Sun also announced partnerships Starwave Corp., a distributor of magazines on the Web; Dimension X, a 3D online adventure games developer; and the Foote Come & Belding advertising group.

Starwave will use the C-like Java code to develop a Windows 95-based Web server and a large number of client applets, including agents creating real-time customized news feeds. Starwave is also working on an interactive Rotisserie sports league, which should be launched in time for the 1995-96 football season. Participants will be able to trade players and get their standings updated in real time. The company plans to charge a monthly premium for the services.

Karl Jacob, from Dimension X, also revealed at Sun World that his company would develop Java- filled pages for the AT&T ImagiNation Network (rolling out June 1) and for the season finale of “The Simpsons”, in which Mr. Burns gets shot. The company is also working on developing a Java- filled site for TopCow comics, publishers of CyberForce and StrykeForce.

The Java language and HotJava browser use the new app HTML tag, which invokes programs from a normal HTML Web page. Because HotJava uses a distributed code execution scheme, it allows individual sites to provide specialized programs for visiting HotJava users. “Distributed code execution is a very exciting concept that should have hit the mainstream a long time ago,” said Nathan Williams, an MIT-based developer currently writing a Linux port for the browser.

Applets are comparatively compact. “Compiled Java programs are roughly the size of text-only HTML pages,” said Mark Scott Johnson, a senior software engineering manager at Sun Microsystems. “They are considerably smaller than many other media types, such as audio and images.” Class-groups downloads due to be implemented in the beta stage should further speed up the process.

The app tag, which was submitted last fall to the World Wide Web Consortium for approval, will allow page designers to launch special program ranging from animation to audio and beyond. Pre-designed applets, which are called through the tag, can be downloaded from the Java site. Programmers can also create their own applets using Java. This language, according to the folks at Sun, was designed to allow easy portability among platforms. The tag is, of course, merely the mechanism to call an applet, and some designers worry that a serious Java jones could undermine existing Web protocols such as HTML.

“I could write a live-video applet for HotJava, but I’d lose all of the work that has gone into information locating and content negotiation in existing Web protocols,” states Williams.

Some Web watchers also have security questions about downloading applets, since the browser is executing bits of code acquired from unknown and perhaps virus-ridden machines. According to Sun, however, applets can be prevented from changing any files on the receiving machine. Additionally, applets can read only documents on their home Web site; cautious users or administrators can dlsaflow certain sites altogether.

While HotJava is currently only available for the Solaris 2.3 and 2.4 with OpenWin, Sun plans to port the browser to Windows NT and Windows 95, as well as MacOS 7.5 and Solaris X86. Developers are also writing versions of the browser for Windows 3.1 1, Linux, Ultrix, and Irix for fall release.