Say bye to Visual J++ and hi to Cool — maybe

Microsoft Corp.’s voyages through the U.S. court system produces anecdotes the way a runaway horse shoots sparks off its hooves, but the most intriguing tidbit so far is the speculation that the highly-successful Visual J++ tool is about to be scrapped.

If true, the VJ buzz is bad news for one group but good for other developers.

According to unconfirmed rumour mongering, Microsoft may cease further work on VJ because of the recent court decision which forces all its Java products into a Sun Microsystems-compliant mould. Microsoft, so the story goes, would rather kill the tool than see it produce only pure Java.

Microsoft, to its credit, is complying with the court and has issued a service pack for Visual Studio 6.0 that switches VJ’s default development mode from Windows Java extensions to cross-platform. However, customers who install the pack will be able to simply set the default mode back, so the whole thing seems a little silly.

But silly or not, the court ruling has apparently pushed Microsoft to reconsider VJ. Rumours of the tool’s demise were strengthened when Microsoft asked the U.S. District Court to rule on whether it can build and sell products that “perform the same or similar functions” as Java. Such technology would be exempt from Sun’s compatibility tests.

Enter Cool. Apparently, Microsoft has been discreetly briefing developers on a new object-oriented language designed to compete with Java. The fledgling is code-named Cool. (Apparently, even the code-namers at Microsoft understand marketing.)

Unknown at this point is whether Cool will be cross-platform, as Java was supposed to be, or if Microsoft will go Windows only. It’s an interesting question, as Microsoft has always defended its Windows-optimized Java approach by claiming developers crave Windows code. Cross platform, they’ve said, is a cute concept but not really important. If Cool hits multiple platforms and Microsoft starts talking up the importance of that, then the vendor opens itself to charges of hypocrisy.

But back to Visual J++. What if the rumours are true?

First, dropping VJ will leave committed users out in the cold. Sure, right now they’re using the tool to churn out Windows-specific Java, but, starved of R&D sustenance, VJ would fall behind in the innovation race and users will flock to Inprise or Symantec.

However, the news will be good for a different group of coders: Java purists. Actually, good is an understatement — it will be cause for weekend-parties and Monday hangovers. Those who bought into Scott McNealy’s cross-platform vision have long hated Microsoft’s attack on what they view as a worthwhile cause. (That, of course, was always somewhat unfair. If coders didn’t buy VJ then Microsoft wouldn’t sell it. Blame the users, not the dealers.)

And, ironically enough, if Microsoft drops Visual J++ it will actually be good for programming in general. This is true for two reasons.

First, Java can get along quite well without Microsoft. Sun and the other vendors will provide the tools and R&D funding to propel it forward. So Java will not suffer direct damage, and programmers will be able to move on once the Windows-specific vs. 100% Pure thing dies.

Second, innovation is always beneficial. If Microsoft creates a new language then that just increases the options for coders.

Bring on Cool. Let’s see what Microsoft can do.