Sun utters the ‘F’ word

At the SunNetwork conference held recently, Rich Green, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s vice-president of developer tools and Java software, led his pitch for the Java Enterprise System (formerly Orion) by saying, “We need to talk about the F word.” Even though that hook was obviously part of a campaign and Green used it on every analyst he encountered, the phrase got my attention.

We did talk about the word, which turned out to be “framework.” Green and Sun have some interesting ideas about frameworks that seem to be at odds with each other. But that’s not the point. The point is to use that word and the concept behind it to prove the inferiority of Microsoft Corp.’s enterprise application approach.

First, a digression to set things up. The theme for most of SunNetwork was “Microsoft isn’t an enterprise player.” I had so hoped that Sun had abandoned that tack, but it came roaring back with a vengeance. That assertion is dead wrong and tiresome. Sun’s pitchmen on the tools side, including Green, tarred all of Microsoft’s tools and enterprise frameworks with one brush: Visual Basic. I’ve looked down my nose at VB, too, but I’m not alone in observing that VB cleared the way for Java’s commercial success. That’s a convenient fact to forget, along with the bevy of other languages inside .Net and out. Sun writes all of Visual Studio .Net off by insisting that the tools aren’t suitable for large projects. That has not been my experience, but let’s get back to the subject at hand.

A framework, as Rich Green sees it, is what it’s always been: a transparent, portable, standardized set of components and services that live under applications. Sun aims to take what has been structured as APIs and libraries, and abstract it so you can count on it wherever you go. That sounds good. It sounds like what Java, J2EE, and .Net were aiming for to begin with. But Green and company want Sun’s tools to create a different kind of framework in developers’ heads. They’re hoping to promote a new approach to coding and design.

Rich Green isn’t a big fan of UML (Unified Modeling Language) and other diagrammatic design techniques. Amen to that. But a programmer can’t – or shouldn’t – start a serious project by typing code onto a blank page. If the guidance doesn’t come from a set of diagrams sent down from the architects, what will lowly programmers do?

That’s where the framework comes in. Green says that Sun’s Java development tools will “know” the right way to tackle certain types of projects. As the developer works through the project, he or she is guided by boilerplates, patterns, and other elements that are part of the tools set. The framework, then, is the marriage of the knowledge embedded in the tools and the knowledge in the programmer’s head. If the tools are done right, it will be a two-way relationship: The tools make the programmer smarter, and vice versa.

Philosophically, I can go for that. Having 10 minutes to hack a project that should take all day requires the talents of creative programmers. Many of the techniques being employed now are intended to keep programmers in line, and to enforce boundaries and chains of command. I’m in favour of loosening corporate development’s ties. So chime in the new framework, Sun. Let’s see what you can do. Just don’t forget you’re not the only ones in the game. Your tools demos at SunNetwork had developers applauding. That’s not a bad start.