Java advocates ponder the road ahead

The biggest challenge facing Java is a marketing one, agreed panellists pondering the issue of “Supercharging Java with Web Services” at a keynote at the Web Services Edge conference, which was held alongside TechXNY/PC Expo at New York’s Javits Convention Center last month.

Most outspoken of the group was Javalobby Inc. founder and president Rick Ross, who harshly criticized the infighting of major Java developers and suggested that Java technology needs a concerted marketing push from its deep-pocketed stakeholders.

Microsoft Corp. has effectively undermined Java, Ross said, drawing a parallel between the “Java War” and ice skating’s most notorious scandal, Tonya Harding’s involvement in the 1994 attack on her rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

“When Nancy had her knee whacked by that guy Tonya hired, nobody expected her to be able to go out and win. Java has to come back from a position of disadvantage created by Microsoft. We need to get back,” Ross said.

Microsoft is about to blitz the software world with its .NET framework, and the Java community needs a counterattack plan, he argued.

Web services took a backseat as the panellists discussed ways to advance the Java cause.

Microsoft has “raised the bar” on offering tools for application developers, said BEA Systems Inc. WebLogic Workshop engineering director George Snelling. The Java community has traditionally underinvested in development tools and is only now beginning to catch up to what Microsoft has made available, he said.

“Microsoft is actually ahead of the Java camp in a lot of ways,” agreed Borland Software Corp. chief strategy officer Ted Shelton.

“Right now we’re fighting with each other more than any of us are fighting with Microsoft,” Shelton added, a comment Ross enthusiastically seconded.

“We’ve got to remember, we have to advocate for Java as a whole as the platform (for building enterprise applications) before we compete,” Ross said.

When he suggests vendors of Java-based applications and development tools spend money promoting the platform, the reply he usually gets is that marketing Java should be the job of its creator, Sun Microsystems Inc., Ross said. That attitude has to change, he argued.

“Everybody who thinks Sun is a great marketing company, raise your hand,” he said. Indicating the scant showing of raised hands in the audience, he continued, “Right, and this is the company we’re trusting with the marketing of Java?”

Java’s marketing issues aren’t an insignificant problem, said Borland’s Shelton. In a recent survey Borland conducted of “C-level executives,” i.e., top corporate officers, the predominant response from those surveyed was “Java is over.”

Respondents perceived that Java had been pitched to them as a panacea for everything, and once it failed to deliver on that promise, they became disenchanted with the platform and receptive to the promises of Microsoft’s .NET.

“How have we, as an industry, led our C-level people to believe Java was going to solve the common cold and cancer, to the point where they’re now so fed up with it? That’s the problem we need to solve,” Shelton said.

But not all is bleak in the outlook for Java. One of Java’s key selling points is its multivendor support, said BEA’s Snelling, an asset that should increasingly attract customers as they take a serious look at the dangers of tying their enterprise infrastructure to Microsoft’s proprietary .NET.

“When a large company goes to renegotiate their enterprise licensing agreement for (Microsoft) Office, it’s not a pretty sight. All the price power is with Microsoft. Now think what happens when you build your crown jewels, your core enterprise infrastructure, on a single vendor’s solution. They can charge whatever they want,” he said. “I think the advantage of being in the Java community is our collective agreement not to do that, to innovate and then standardize and compete on implementation.”

Although Microsoft may dominate the PC market, Java has the potential to become the leading technology in developing niches that could soon dwarf the sectors Microsoft has cornered, said Simon Phipps, Sun’s director of technology evangelism.

“In the mobile industry, Microsoft has so far completely failed to assert monopolistic control,” Phipps said. And mobile is the way the industry is heading: There is a vast opportunity to wire cars, appliances and a wide range of other devices, he said.

“All are worlds Java committed to working in. That’s the reason I’m not quite as worried as Rick is. Java is delivering in a way no monopolist is able to do at this moment,” Phipps said. “Dinosaurs have their days numbered. They’ll still be around, but they’re going to be perching on the edge of the arena, not stalking in the centre of it.”