Can Oracle help JavaFX overcome hurdles?

Nearly three years after its introduction, the JavaFX multimedia application development platform that Oracle inherited from Sun Microsystems remains just another entrant in a crowded field, with questions looming about how much momentum the platform can gather.


Unveiled at the JavaOne conference in May 2007, JavaFX is intended to provide a Java-based entrant into the growing market for development of multimedia whiz-bang applications for desktops and mobile devices. JavaFX 1.0 was released in December 2008, and as of June 2009, there had been more than 400,000 downloads of the JavaFX tools and SDK, according to the official JavaFX Web page. JavaFX is available on more than 250 million desktops, the page says. The platform features the JavaFX Script scripting language, a rich client platform and tools, and integration with the Java runtime.


But the debut of JavaFX trailed RIA (rich Internet application) technologies, such as Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight, and AJAX, giving JavaFX rivals a sometimes-substantial head start in developer and market mindshare. Compounding the difficulties faced by JavaFX (and its rivals, for that matter) is the emergence the HTML5 specification, which some view as an eventual, standards-based successor to all the current proprietary multimedia development platforms.


Oracle, however, is marching on with JavaFX, emphasizing its commitment to it last year while the company’s acquisition of Sun was pending. An authoring tool for designers is planned as part of the JavaFX tools ecosystem. JavaFX also was used at the Vancouver Winter Olympics last month on the Web site, although that fact was obscured by the use of Silverlight at the same games by NBC.


Can Oracle overcome a slow start?

Despite Oracle’s commitment, JavaFX has its doubters and proponents.


One developer, Mark Volkmann, a steering committee member of the Saint Louis Java Users Group, says JavaFX has been slow in its progress. “I think it wasn’t too late when they first announced it, but I think they have moved too slowly since they’ve announced it,” says Volkmann, who prefers HTML5.


“At the moment, I don’t really have a lot of interest in JavaFX,” Volkmann says, remarking that he wants to see if he can get by using HTML5, JavaScript, and the jQuery JavaScript library.


While JavaFX is better than rival technologies, it did not get the proper backing from Sun, says Java developer Frank Greco, chairman of the New York Java Special Interest Group. “It’s superior, but maybe that doesn’t count anymore,” he says, adding that he has developed some small JavaFX programs.


At this stage, JavaFX will survive only if Oracle can build a business around it, says Mark Little, chief technologist for middleware at Red Hat and a member of a Java Community Process executive committee. “Otherwise, it will die.”


To help build a business around it, JavaFX needs tools support and integration with more IDEs, Greco says. To this end, Oracle’s efforts for the JavaFX tool chain include accommodating existing tools with plug-ins that enable exporting of vector graphics, images, and filters to the Java platform, says Nandini Ramani, director of Java development at Oracle, in an interview posted on the Oracle Website.


JavaFX 1.2 Production Suite features tools to export graphical assets from the popular (though three-year-old) Adobe Photoshop CS3 and Adobe Illustrator CS3 applications to JavaFX Script Code. Also planned is an authoring tool for designers. “It’s an aggregator, actually, so designers can build their different content,” Ramani says. Additionaly, a preview of JavaFX Composer, which plugs into NetBeans and leverages JavaFX, is available for visual editing of form-based UIs.


“We have a lot of exciting things we’re doing in the Java client space, including fixing the deployment model, the plug-in, which for years people have been telling us needs to be addressed,” Ramani says. Going forward, unified deployment will be featured for Java across multiple screens, including mobile, TV, desktop, and browser, she adds.


How a JavaFX fan compares the RIA to its rivals

Oracle of course praises JavaFX: “JavaFX is actually a rich media platform,” Ramani says. “It [works] really well for Internet-based dynamic media.”


Also standing in JavaFX’s corner is JavaFX developer Jim Weaver, a senior vice president of technology at VNI Media. The platform, he says, is coming along quite well: “There are issues that are being improved [upon] everyday regarding deployment of Java and JavaFX applications.” These issues include speeding deployment for the Java Runtime Environment, such as via the Java SE 6 Update 10, he says, reducing the deployment-time gap between JavaFX and Flash.


HTML5, meanwhile, will be cool, but it is not a true rich Internet application platform, Weaver says. “[HTML5] is still a hypertext markup language and it’s meant for sharing documents. It is not at its core a rich Internet application platform,” he says.

For example, JavaFX offers native access to Java classes, unlike with Flash and Flex, where developers must use a bridge to access these classes, Weaver says.


Microsoft’s rich media entrant, Silverlight, seems too closely tied to Microsoft’s own platform, Weaver says. And with AJAX and JavaScript, the many variants of JavaScript and issues with instability in the browser make them problematic for RIA usage, he adds.


Java, however, features the No. 1 language and virtual machine, Weaver says. “I don’t think it’s too late” for JavaFX to compete, he adds. Weaver also anticipates more UI components are forthcoming for JavaFX, via a release known both as JavaFX 1.3 and the code name SoMa.

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