Java development vendors ready to rumble

At long last, we’re about to see a good, healthy fight over Java. Not the courtroom battle between Sun and Microsoft — that won’t benefit anyone but the lawyers.

And besides, the referee — er, judge — wants the parties to settle their differences peaceably. No, we’re about to hear the bell for a slugfest that will not only be entertaining, but just may finally deliver on all those Java promises.

In this corner is Sun Microsystems with its HotSpot Java engine. In the other corner is IBM, which just rolled out what it claims is the fastest Java engine for Windows, on its AlphaWorks Web site.

In the other corner is the tag team of Novell and Intel, with their Java engine dubbed NetFire. And in the remaining corner is Hewlett-Packard, which will release a Java engine this summer and a compiler for HP-UX this fall.

What’s going on? Has the Java alliance completely fallen apart? Nah — it’s finally beginning to bear real fruit. IBM, Novell, Intel and HP are still committed to a Java standard. But they’ve finally stopped politely waiting for Sun to improve Java’s performance. From now on, they’ll do it themselves.

That means we’ll see better Java products faster. Cooperation is a very civilized way to implement technology — but bare-knuckle competition gets the job done.

And we need that. We’ve been waiting more than a year for Sun’s HotSpot Java engine, which actually compiles Java programs into native code instead of simply interpreting it, as standard Java engines do. HotSpot, which was going to boost performance spectacularly, was supposed to ship last year. Sun bragged that 1998 was “the year the problem goes away.” That didn’t happen.

Everyone knew the number one priority for Java had to be snappier performance. Everyone, apparently, except Sun. So while Java’s developers took their time getting HotSpot together, Java users did a slow burn.

But now we don’t have to depend on Sun. For Windows, we’ll have the option of IBM’s new engine, which like HotSpot compiles Java to native code. Novell customers will get an engine that uses some of the HotSpot technology but is optimized for NetWare. HP’s big move is a Java compiler that will generate stand-alone native code, so HP-UX users won’t need a Java engine at all. In other words, we’ll get real competition and real innovation.

Maybe that won’t be much fun for the folks at Sun. Suddenly, the world of Java won’t revolve around them. They’ll have to start competing a lot harder — and delivering on their promises a lot faster — to remain the big dog. And while “write once, run anywhere” is still the goal, it won’t be One Java, Under God.

It will also mean a little more effort for corporate IT shops working with Java. We’ll have choices for a change. Not choices between one or another proprietary version of the Java language, but between interchangeable Java products we’ll need to test and compare head to head.

It won’t be neat and clean. Real competition never is. Java is about to get messier for us, as IT shops decide whether compiling Java to stand-alone code is worth the trade-offs and whether one Java engine is really better than another.

But that’s the price of admission. The prize is that from here on out, those vendors will be beating their brains out to deliver the fastest or smallest or most stable or most innovative Java products.

That competition may just make Java a champ once again.

— IDG News Service