Sun’s Java is the hottest thing on the Web since Netscape. Maybe hotter. But for all the buzz, Java nearly became a business-school case study in how a good product fails. The inside story of bringing Java to the market.
With three minutes to go before the midnight deadline in August 1995, Sun Microsystems engineer Arthur van Hoff took one last look at Java and HotJava, the company’s new software for the World Wide Web, and pondered what his colleagues call Arthur’s Law: Do it right, or don’t do it. Satisfied, the Dutch programming wizard encrypted the files containing the software’s source code, moved them to an Internet site, and e-mailed the key to Netscape Communications Corporation, Java’s first commercial customer. Five years after the project was launched, Java was done – with a minute to spare.
As he sat at his workstation ready to push the button, van Hoff had good reason to hesitate. Since early versions of the software were released in December 1994, Java has unleashed stratospheric expectations. While today’s Web is mostly a static brew – a grand collection of electronically linked brochures – Java holds the promise of caffeinating the Web, supercharging it with interactive games and animation and thousands of application programs nobody’s even thought of. At the same time, Java offers Sun and other Microsoft foes renewed hope that Bill Gates’s iron grip on the software business can be pried loose. Microsoft rules the desktop, but as networking expands its role, says van Hoff, Java could turn out to be “the DOS of the Internet.” Indeed, Sun is rushing to make Java a de facto standard on the burgeoning Web. If Sun succeeds, even Microsoft will have a hard time muscling in.
Software developers are busy shaping Java into applications that will add new life to Web browsers like Netscape and Mosaic, producing programs that combine real-time interactivity with multimedia features that have been available only on CD-ROM. (Java is a programming language, HotJava an “interpreter” installed onto a browser, enabling Java programs delivered over the Web to run on the desktop.) What’s a Java application? Point to the Ford Motor website, for instance, and all you’ll get are words and pictures of the latest cars and trucks.
Using Java, however, Ford’s server could relay a small application (called an applet) to a customer’s computer.
From there, the client could customize options on an F-series pickup while calculating the monthly tab on various loan rates offered by a finance company or local bank.
Add animation to these applications and the possibilities are endless.
Hollywood and Madison Avenue are salivating. “Java allows us to do the things that advertisers and studios are asking us to do,” says Karl Jacob, CEO and chief technologist at Dimension X Inc., a San Francisco company creating 3-D websites using Java. “Until now, everything on the Web was fizzling, not sizzling.”
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