Originally published in the March 1, 1995 issue of Web Week

Java, the new programming language for the World-Wide Web, has been out for a few months, and the early reviews are in: The language is good but may need improvement.

Programmers are praising the technology, which was introduced by Sun Microsystems as a way to make the Web more interactive, for its elegance and ease of use. “With Java, Web information can be tailored to the multimedia user’s attention span,” said Paul Gerard, a manager of Web development for Chicago-based Information Technology Solutions. His company deals with derivatives traders, and is experimenting with Java to deliver live bond prices running across the top of a browser while running queries against historical data.

Experienced developers said that Java offers some of the power of the C++ programming language, while being far easier to use. “I think of Java as a shotgun wedding between Modula-3 and Smalltalk, with C++ syntax as the sugar coating to make it go down easily in the marketplace,” said Douglas Barnes, president of Electric Communities, which is developing a cryptography package for Java. “Since Sun managed to extract the best parts of all three languages, I think they have a hot property on their hands.”

For all the excitement about the Java language itself, there are complaints about the related browser, HotJava. “The biggest problem I see [with HotJava] is that the documentation is truly abysmal,” said a programmer who did not want his name used. “I had to get the HotJava sources and examine them just to figure out how to open up a window in a Java application.”

Other early users complain about the current level of specialization needed to simply run Java, as well as its lack of cross-platform support. Java is available only to Windows NT and Solaris 2.X users at the current time. Those operating systems usually run on high-end machines like Sparcstations and Pentium PCs.

“Right now it is a very powerful language that can only be accessed by browsers on very powerful machines,” said Ryan Garcia, a Web developer for the University of Michigan. “It has yet to branch into the vast majority of systems that use the Web, namely home computers,” he added.

Some developers also have security concerns about Java. “I don’t have confidence that Java is truly secure,” said Robert Graham, a developer for Menlo Park, CA-based Network General Corp.

“I believe that HotJava should disallow all access by a Java program to the internal file system.”

But Ian Eslick, a Java developer at MIT, said he believes that the security model built into Java makes solving these problems much easier. “It would be interesting to see a ‘remove safety checks’ from the Java compilers so you could generate non-safe code for high-speed critical applications but then you break the security model,” he said.

Concerns Over Speed

Indeed, speed is at the core of many Java programmers’ concerns. Many have gotten used to C programming, with its rapid compile times, and would like to find a way to compile speedier applications in Java.

“Java at runtime is not as fast as optimized compiled C,” said Scott Fraize of Dimension X, a Web development company. “But it’s still very fast, and will literally become as fast as compiled [unoptimized] C by late summer, when the in-line native compiler will become available.”

The final judgment is yet to be rendered, and understandably so, in the view of many early Java developers. “This is alpha software. It hasn’t even hit beta testing yet,” said cryptography expert Barnes. “Certainly there are a lot of very smart people inside and outside Sun working on it.”

While the marketplace will decide whether Java is really hot or not, Network General’s Graham pointed out that the language does have a solid alpha publicly available, committed support from browser vendor Netscape Communications, and an enthusiastic base of early Java developers. Those are things, he said, that could help it become the next big thing.