Sun Microsystems Inc.’s recent JavaOne Developer Conference in San Francisco featured applications from more than 350 companies, new enterprise technologies and a wide array of announcements.

And with close to 21,000 attendees at the show, Java has obviously held the interest of many developers and corporations around the world.

George Paolini, vice-president of marketing at Sun’s JavaSoft division, spoke with ComputerWorld Canada assistant editor Karen Hill about the state of the standardization of Java, application development trends, developers’ concerns and the fact that many companies are betting their business on Java.

CWC: With 21,000 people at this conference there’s obviously quite a bit of interest from developers. But do you think Java is going to hit a plateau? You can have new products and new enhancements for only so long.

Paolini: Sure. We’re already starting to see people trying to project that it’s already happening, that it will become mainstream, it will become routine. And yes, any technology that has the degree of interest as Java has had certainly lends itself to that. Usually the higher up it goes, the more dramatic the decline and I think…looking back over the last four or five years, we hit that point in ’98.

I think we started to see some criticism on were we really working on improving performance, where were we with being more flexible in our model for involving the community? And I think we worked hard, we did some soul searching, we worked hard on trying to address those issues and I think for the most part we’re on the upswing.

Now having said that, it’s hard sometimes on the outside to look in and see that, when the numbers just keep going up. But it’s not so much the numbers are going straight up, they’re going on a gradual incline but with some slight declines here and there on various things.

CWC: What is Sun doing around the standardization issue? I understand you’re moving away from ISO?

Paolini: Actually, our ultimate objective is still to get ISO certification and what we are trying to do is work through a group known as ECMA, which originally stood for the European Computer Manufacturer’s Association. And we’ve had one goal in this whole thing and the goal is to balance two objectives: foster innovation and maintain compatibility.

In the press conference this morning, (Sun vice-president of technology and architecture) Jim Mitchell talked a little bit about this and some of the lessons learned in the Unix model where Unix was pretty much widely open, pretty much freely available, and yet there was no methodology for ensuring compatibility.

Now of course on the other end of the spectrum, you have Microsoft and other companies who have done it with proprietary technologies, where you have absolute authority and therefore you have absolute compatibility, yet you risk not fostering innovation at a rapid enough speed. So we started a model four years ago where we tried to balance allowing people, allowing companies, allowing individuals to participate with us in evolving a technology and yet at the end of the day when they built something, if they modified the source code, it still had to run through this series of tests that we had designed. That was our way to ensure compatibility.

The issue with ISO and the issue we will need to deal with ECMA is we are going to be very steadfast in our requirement that the process we put in place is not jeopardized and it’s not compromised. And so we’re going to ensure that the Java Community Process, which is what we call this process now that is audited independently by Pricewaterhouse, continues to be part of the process for getting the technology into some sort of ISO program.

CWC: A lot of companies are focusing on Java for their own businesses. They’re betting on Java and relying on Sun. Do you feel some pressure because companies are betting their business on you?

Paolini: Yes, absolutely. We certainly take it with every degree of seriousness. In some ways entire industries are resting on our shoulders at this point. And there’s both good and bad to that. The good is that we obviously believe this is the right model for the industry. The bad news is that as rapidly as this thing is growing, we can only move so quickly.

Some of the things we’ve put into place over the last year I think are [there] to make sure we are evolving the technology and we are cultivating innovation on the technology. So things like the Sun Community Source License, which allows more flexible terms in how you use the technology, and Java Community Process, [which covers] how you evolve the technology, I think are going to help us take it to that next level.

CWC: Do you have any advice for developers on where they should be focusing their attention in the next few years?

Paolini: If I had to offer one piece of advice it’s to recognize that the market opportunities for your applications are much greater than the desktop, which was the model of the past. So if I had to sum it up more succinctly I would say write for the network, program for the network, and keep the network in mind.

And when you do that you have to think of things like scalability and security and interactivity, dynamic capabilities of the application that you’re developing, which for some application programmers is still a tough transition. We’re still locked in the concept of developing applications that run on one device, typically a desktop computer. And that model is rapidly changing.

Virtually every device with a microprocessor and a network port of some sort is a candidate for being a network computer. And the interesting thing is when you look at the number of microprocessors that were manufactured last year for computers — computers in this case being PCs or PC-type devices — it was around 100 million, maybe 120 million. But when you consider that in comparison there were six billion microprocessors manufactured you get a pretty clear understanding of where the direction of computing technology is going and it’s not in desktop devices.

CWC: Sun has really focused on 3Com’s Palm devices at JavaOne. Are these devices the latest trend?

Paolini: Palm’s a very interesting story. It’s what I call the insidious invasion of technology, especially in the workplace. A couple years ago, I remember I’d go into a meeting and somebody would pull out the Palm 3 and start working on it. And somebody sitting next would ask what he or she was doing? ‘Well, I’m looking up a phone, address or doing this, or doing this.’ Well that’s cool, and before you know it they’re in a conversation. Now this person is acting as an evangelist for this technology, completely unsolicited by Palm in this case.

Before you know it two or three people in the meeting have the Palm devices and before you know it you start seeing e-mails cropping up on the internal aliases within the company, saying ‘Does anybody know where I can get this application or that application, or has anybody written this application for a Palm or does anybody know how I can hot sync this, or do that?’

This is all sort of underground use in the corporation. Within a year or two, the CIO has to make a decision and the decision has to be, ‘We will support these devices or we won’t,’ but that CIO had nothing to do with these devices becoming part of his or her network. It happened insidiously. It was a grass roots effort, the individuals involved starting widely adopting these devices because they increased productivity.

The reason we’re focusing on the Palm this week is because I think it’s a powerful example of how technology is adopted. Sometimes it is top down and the CIO and the IT managers need to establish a set of rules, but the rules cannot be autocratic and they can’t be arbitrary because individuals will do what they damn well please. The PC was the same thing. The PC was adopted under the same sort of model.

What this says to developers is your old market was that thing that sat on your desktop and there were maybe 100 million units shipping a year, and now there’s tens of millions of devices shipping a month in one category. There’s just no comparison.

CWC: What would you say are developers concerns right now? And how is Sun addressing those?

Paolini: I would say the big concern over the last year, and I’m happy to say I think we have addressed it, has been performance. And the biggest issue in adopting Java technology has been really doing an opportunity cost benefit analysis and saying, ‘If I want true portability, how much performance am I willing to sacrifice? And in many cases they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit, and the interesting thing is that we’ve improved the performance to the degree now that I think the cost benefit analysis no longer has to be done.

So the portability vs. performance story I think is no longer an issue. I think that’s been the biggest thing that developers have had to face over the last year.