Java man itching to return to his tech roots

James Gosling is a Mac fan. Asked whether he does this for business or political reasons, he admitted, “it’s a bit of both.”

For someone who has “given up being anything other than the Java guy,” it’s rather ironic that in earlier incarnations Gosling, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s chief technology officer of Sun’s Developer Products group, was — for a while anyway — the WYSIWYG guy, and even the Emacs guy.

Then again, the stickiness of his title is of little surprise, since the Java programming language has arguably had a bigger impact on the IT industry than any other Canadian information technology invention. His previous claims to fame were an early WYSIWYG text editor and a text editor called `Emacs’ for Unix systems.

Today Gosling spends much of his time on the business side of things “talking to customers and the press…and trying to keep the rocket on course.” Thus he remains far enough removed from his techie roots that he pines for his days in the trenches.

“I certainly want to be more technical again,” he said, and hopes to be so within a year or so once the IT industry “comes alive again after a near-death experience.”

Sun, like most IT companies, is battling its way back from the dog days that engulfed it when the tech bubble burst. But Gosling said for all the crazy predictions in the late nineties — market implosion notwithstanding — the accuracy of the numbers is surprising. Even the wildest projections for Internet use and e-commerce “were actually pretty close,” he said, citing a recent Economist article.

As far as the Java language is concerned, Gosling admitted that many projections were way off. Java on the desktop has never really caught on, he said. “Various things happened to make that not work,” Gosling said, referring to a drawn-out lawsuit with Microsoft Corp. that was only recently settled. But in other areas Java adoption has gone “way beyond what was expected.”

Three that immediately come to mind are enterprise software applications, cell phones and smart cards, he said.

Sun is also well represented in the financial industry, but Gosling said this doesn’t get a lot of press since banks “can be a bit tight-lipped.” Regardless, “there are big buckets of Java code” being used in the industry. Billions of dollars of transactions run over Java code everyday and one reason for this is its inherent security, Gosling said.

Gosling is particularly proud of the solidity of the Java code model. “You have to design it from the bedrock up,” he said. For example, Java’s memory model can’t be violated, so there is no possibility of buffer overflow, the number-one cause of software vulnerabilities.

It is because of this that Gosling does not buy into the Microsoft notion that its software is more often attacked because of its prevalence, not what he says are its design flaws.

If people attacked systems searching for the biggest bang for their buck (an analogy Microsoft often uses), they’d be going after banks because “that is where the actual money is.” But there have been no successful hacks of Java code in banks, Gosling said.

So it should come as little surprise to learn that Gosling is a Mac fan. The Mac is a “frigging work of art,” he said, drawing a comparison between the Mac and Sun. “Most folks in the PC market strive to make [computers] as cheap as possible.” Hardware is a commodity, and operating in a commodity market, as Sun does, is a challenge, he said, so the company has to create products that stand apart on their technical merits. Gosling said there will be always a place for a premium-priced product — be it a car or a server — as long as it’s more reliable and easier to manage.

The conversation then turned to politics, specifically the notion of Canada’s Java man officially becoming a U.S. citizen. He toyed with the idea so he could vote during the recent U.S. federal election, but decided against it. Unhappy with the state of American politics, and concerned about what the future holds for his two American-born daughters, Gosling and his wife have even contemplated a move back north. “We sure talk about it,” he said. But for the time being he’ll stay put in California and keep visiting his local diner in Woodside, not far from home, where he isn’t known as Java man but Kelsey’s dad.