Hot Java needs work

Users must take a reality check on Sun's promise of Java portability, writes Caroline Davis

Users must take a reality check on Sun's promise of Java portability, writes Caroline Davis

Last week, Computer Weekly reported that e-commerce systems supplier Entranet is offering a £50,000 reward for anyone who can track down a team of 10 or more Java programmers. The SSP salary and skills survey, reported in the same issue, also found that Java was one of the most sought after skills in e-commerce.

There is no doubt that Java has become hot property. However, it is less certain whether Java is the "write once, run anywhere" language that Sun Microsystems promised.

Dhamesh Mistry, chief technology officer at Entranet, says the platform independence of Java is key. Entranet uses Java and XML to produce e-commerce solutions for financial services companies such as Woolwich and Virgin Direct.

"With multi-delivery systems - PCs, kiosks, digital TV and personal digital assistants - we found Java shows true platform independence," he says. "We ported a whole system to WinCE in just a month, because Java code has 80%-90% reusability."

Entranet finds Microsoft's lack of support for Java a drawback, as this means it has to be vigilant not to introduce any proprietary features. But its main gripe is recruitment. "The rate of take-up is outstripping the number of staff available," Mistry complains.

Other Java users are not so enthusiastic about Java portability. The industry joke "write once, test everywhere" rings true for Ewan McDonald, information services delivery manager for Scottish Equitable.

Last year the pension and investment company deployed a Java-based application that allows independent financial advisers to access data held in legacy systems on mainframes. Although Scottish Equitable is continuing to use Java extensively, McDonald says, "You can't just write once on Unix and expect the application to run on NT. But it is a good programming language."

Sun is not alone in wanting Java to succeed. IBM is keen to support the technology. Steve Garone, program vice- president at research firm IDC, says, "IBM is probably one of the greatest proponents of Java today."

Last month, IBM unveiled Java Virtual Machines (JVMs) for the latest version of Java 2, to run on nine different platforms. A consistent set of JVMs over a wide array of platforms is another step towards the holy grail of portability, says Garone.

Ovum analyst Christine Axton adds, "IBM is specifying and extending Java specifications before Sun. It wrote a lot of the latest version of Java."

However, she thinks write once, run anywhere is an unrealisable dream. The problem lies the specifications. Axton estimates that only 70% of what is needed in an application server is written in the Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE) specification. "Suppliers have to decide how to implement the other 30% themselves, inevitably leading to proprietary tie-ins," she says.

Dave Pinnington, Java consultant at Sun, disagrees. He says Java has achieved a write once run anywhere ubiquity. "But this can mean very little if you don't have your target in mind. Java written for mobile phones will be very different to that for PCs or workstations as memory and screen sizes are different," he says.

On the one hand, Sun says its compatibility test suite ensures that an application will deploy on any platform. On the other, Pinnington insists that the J2EE specifications are also built to allow software suppliers to add value. "If not, it would be like telling all vendors there's only one way to do things," he says.

Next week, San Francisco will play host to 25,000 Java developers as they gather for Sun's annual JavaOne conference. At last year's event, Sun launched Java 2 Enterprise Edition, designed to build enterprise applications. This year, Sun is expected to talk about server-side application development tools as well as announcing the first suppliers to be certified as J2EE implementers.

Axton says that, although Java is a promising technology, users should take Sun hyperbole with a pinch of salt. "It is more than just a good programming language, but people need to take a reality check on what it can deliver.

"End-users will always have to do some amount of customisation, but there is still quite a high level of portability," she says.

A brief history of Java

May 1995 Official launch of Java

April 1997 Sun announces embedded Java and an Java Platform for the Enterprise

Nov 1997 Sun outlines "Road to Java" strategy to enable businesses to convert to Java

June 1998 Sun tries to stop Microsoft shipping Java with Windows 98 resulting in Microsoft launching a counter-suit claiming breach of contract

June 1999 Sun launches Java 2 Enterprise Edition platform

Dec 1999 Sun pulls out of ECMA standardisation process

April 2000 Judge Jackson ruled Microsoft deliberately designed its Java tools so that applications created would run only on Windows

May 2000 Sun launches latest version of Java 2 Standard Edition version 1.3

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