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Steve Jobs Dismisses Java As "Heavyweight" in an Age of Lightweight Computing

Is Java a "Ball and Chain"?

These are curious times just now for Java. In one and the same month, Steve Jobs stands up, and declares – referring to language support on the new Apple iPhone – “Java’s not worth building in. Nobody uses Java anymore. It’s this big heavyweight ball and chain.” And in the same month a company like Backbase, whose AJAX JSF Edition is aimed at “Java developers who want to leverage the JSF standard by creating a next generation rich component-based AJAX presentation tier,” wins a 'Technology of the Year Award 2007' in the category 'AJAX Toolkits.'

So, is Java toast, history, finished, a sucked orange…or does it have plenty of “legs” yet, and Jobs's remark was just a temporary techno-backlash such as all programming languages must resist from time to time?

Bruce Eckel, who has since 1986 has published six books and over 150 computer articles, views this backlash as inevitable, foreseeable almost:

“This backlash has only been necessary because of Sun’s death grip on the idea of ubiquitous, omniscient Java. It was admirable once, but a language only evolves if its designers and advocates can acknowledge problems. Pretending that a language is successful in places where it’s not is just denial.”

But the Jobs declaration strikes as some as being a little incongruous.

"Am I the only one that finds this interesting since the format Apple is supporting for HD content is BluRay, which uses Java for all the interactive menus or BD-J discs," notes Danny Mavromatis. In other words, Jobs "is supporting a next-gen format which supports a technology that he claims nobody uses anymore."

Jobs's remark was made in an interview with New York Times technology correspondent John Markoff, but there must be more than a suspicion that it was calculated to help generate exactly the kind of massive publicity that will be necessary if Apple is to come anywhere near selling the 10 million iPhones that Jobs was predicting for 2008.

Richard Sprague offers a cautionary tale:

"I remember the lessons I learned working with the Newton team many years ago.  I was in Apple's marketing department at the time and we did this big fancy user study which basically proved that nobody would buy the thing at the price and functionality we were building.  So what did we do?  We shoved it into the market anyway because it was "cool".  Cool is great, but you still need to make phone calls."
Back to Eckel, though. Here is his take on a major flaw in Java versus AJAX:
"So Java has been around for 10 years and applets are not the primary way that we interact with the web. I think the main reason for this is the installation problem, another area of Java that wasn’t well thought-out. In fact, why do we like AJAX?

It’s clearly not because JavaScript is so easy to work with — JavaScript cross-platform problems are the reason people have avoided it in the past. AJAX is popular because we know that the necessary software for the client side is already installed.

Someone had to figure out how to deal with the cross-platform issues for JavaScript first, but if JRE installation was trivial, everyone might have just created Java applets. But they didn’t, applets are not ubiquitous, and everyone got excited about AJAX instead. So AJAX became the favored technology for RIAs."

According to Eckel, the obvious contender, instead of Java, for building RIAs is Flash, and Flex in particular.

"It’s clear that we can’t wait for Sun to fix all of Java’s problems," he writes. "Open-sourcing Java might, eventually, have a huge impact on repairing Java’s deficiencies. For example, work on the JMF might get resurrected. Maybe installation issues will even be fixed someday. The possibilities might be limitless, but if you need to solve problems now, then the solution is to hybridize parts of the language."

By way of explaining this concept of "Hybridizing Java," Eckels explains that in fact we do this already:

"You don’t insist on using a Java database for an application; you use a specialized system like MySQL or Oracle. Sun is directly supporting the development of JRuby for hybrid Java/JRuby programming. We are seeing other special-purpose languages arise to solve specialized problems. Why insist on using a Java library for UI if a specialized system solves the problem better?"
Let's give the last word to Steve Benfield, veteran technologist, who summarizes what he calls his "technology lineage" as PowerBuilder -> Silverstream -> J2EE -> AJAX -> Flex.

"If you are a Java technologist who thinks anything Flash isn't enterprise ready," Benfield states, "then you need to reshift your thinking." He adds:
"We started using Flex 3 months ago and are rocking and rolling – life is good. We can quickly build the GUI we want, integration to our J2EE/Spring/hibernate back end is seamless, and we anxiously await Apollo so we have a full desktop app."
Like I said, these are curious – and challenging – times just now for Java.

More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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