Saturday, October 01, 2005

Java for Sale

I was an early adopter of Java. I was easily persuaded by the arguments in favor. A few years before Java came out, I had dabbled with Smalltalk, so I knew the advantages of a VM. Besides things couldn't go on the way they were with C++ and memory leaks.

Back then Java still had many detractors. Like with Smalltalk, performance was the main criticism. Yet I knew that micro-processors would get faster over time and Java was fast enough for most applications even back then (desktop GUIs were sluggish though). I knew Java wasn't as elegant as Smalltalk and the use of a VM wasn't anything new, but Java was type safe, C-like in syntax, and reasonably performant. For the majority of C++ developers trying to produce server side software, I could see that Java and J2EE would be a great leap forward.

It took me about 2 years to convince my company to use Java. By this time Java had gained quite a momentum in the industry. J2EE Application server implementations were beginning to emerge, and consultancies like Valtech where championing Java as the technology of the future. In fact quite a few big name companies had thrown their weight behind Java. By this time Sun had repositioned themselves as a software company and were practically betting the business on Java. Oracle had jumped on the bandwagon, and as well as creating their own J2EE App. Server, had written Java into the core of their database product. Initially IBM were on the fence, backing both Smalltalk and Java as the OO champions that would steal developer mind-share from Microsoft. Over time though IBM reduced support for Smalltalk and became massive backers of Java (I think even bigger backers than Sun).

I could see the power behind the Java promise of "Write once, run anywhere" especially in light of the threat from Microsoft. Without Java, we could all end up Microsoft developers, with anti-Microsoft vendors forced out. Microsoft had shown their intent for world domination by refusing to "play fair" within the OMG. It was all out warfare.

The anti-Microsoft camp was throwing Millions into Java, downloadable free over the internet. The thought crossed my mind more than once, "How did these companies expect to make money?" If Java software was available free, then developers would try it? Yeah OK. So if developers were using Java then companies would need to support it? True, but what could you sell to companies?

The first commercial Java tool that I used was WebLogic (no not BEA WebLogic, Just WebLogic as it was back then). This was a relatively light weight App. Server written totally in Java. Easy to use, and configured through a single property file. It worked a treat. A developer license of £2K per developer and a run-time license of £11K per server seemed a bit steep, but was reasonable given the gains in developer productivity.

But none of this money was going to Sun. How was Sun going to make money out of Java? I'm not sure if the people at Sun knew, but if world domination was the name of the game, it would be better if the glue pulling everything together on the server was the Java VM rather than Microsoft Windows OS.

The first big non-commercial Java tool I used was the Apache Web Server with built in J2EE Servlet support in the form of Tomcat. The Tomcat servlet engine perfomed much of the server side resource management that full blown App. Servers did, and it wasn't long before some began to recognise that for most applications, the full J2EE stack (Servlets, Stateless/Stateful/Entity Beans, JMS, JNDI, JTA , etc.) just wasn't needed. Besides if you really did need a full J2EE App. Server you could download one for free, JBoss.

By this time the marketing machine behind Java was in full swing. The App. Server market had matured with IBM's WebSphere and BEA WebLogic as the market leaders (Sun missing out again). These new App. Servers weren't simple and clean like the original WebLogic. Instead, they were cumbersome and clunky. Awkward web based App. Server administration was in vogue, and complex XML application configuration could take weeks. Feature bloat had set in, and they where sold as all things to all men. The compexity of these App. Servers was a real problem. Class loader hell, was a common experience for many J2EE developers, and gaining mastery over your App. Server took time and dedication.

Microsoft had woken-up to the marketing power of the Application Server. Middle-ware was the new industry buzz. After being forced to give up on "Microsoft Java", Microsoft produced their own "clean-room" Java clone, C#. They then went on to market their new middle-ware vision. In addition to "Write-once run anywhere (Microsoft chooses)" they added "Write in any language you like (if we choose to support it)" and "Expose your business services over the web (to anyone who uses are protocols)". The .NET era had arrived, it would take about three years before working .NET code would ship, but in marketing terms .NET was real and the industry was holding its' breath.

Sun had put in place the JCP process as a "community" lead way to create and improve Java standards. The problem was that the JCP was a community of Java Vendors not Java Users. Sun has allways flirted with the open-source community as a way of gaining credibility with developers. The fact that you could download the Java JDK source code for free, made Java appear almost open-source, yet there was a growing group of vendors who had bet a lot of money on Java and were looking for a return on investment.

Every .NET announcement would result in a corresponding JSR being raised to provide the same functionality in Java. The Vendors were playing the "my App. Server has more features than yours" game with Microsoft ane each other. Whilst this was going on, the developer community were realising that much of the stuff coming out of the JSRs didn't actually work that well (EJB 2.1 Entity Beans comes to mind), and they were busy producing better open-source solutions themselves. Eventually the gap between what worked and what the JSRs had specified became untenable.

Spring and Hibernate showed what could be done when you actually tried to solve problems rather than sell product. The cat was out the bag and all the JCP could do was try and standardise what the developer community had allready chosen for themselves. I would argue that this is exactly what the JCP should have been doing all along.

They say you can't serve two masters. The JCP process can't be in the interests of both Vendors and Developers at the same time. The developer community have taken matters into their own hands and are busy shaping their own future. Microsoft has gone very quite with .NET recently. The open-source community has targeted .NET too with Mono. The Java Vendor community are still trying to pretend that it is business as usual with JSF (JSR127) and EJB3 (JSR220). The JSF technology is practically obsolete before the first decent vendor tool has been shipped. Everyone knows that the future of web development lies with Continuations and Ajax, both missing from JSF, but available open-source (Squeak Smalltalk and Seaside). EJB3 is available open-source too, as Spring and Hibernate. Why wait to pay for a buggy Spring/Hibernate implementation from BEA?

So my take is that Ruby will carry on picking up momentum on the back of Rails, and who knows even Smalltalk may see a resurgence in popularity with Seaside (I hope). As for Java, well its' still for Sale, but I think there will be less takers in the future.

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