Web Impact: Java still searching for its place in the Sun

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Can something be a wild success and a potential failure all at the same time? If that's possible, then Sun Microsystems' Java programming language may fit that bill better than anything else in the Web universe.

You've heard of Java, no doubt. Let us count the ways: It's a new, Web-centric programming language. It brings interactivity and animation to Web sites. It will soon replace HTML as the way most Web sites are written. It's a Microsoft killer, rendering obsolete operating systems like Windows 95. Any application written in it can run anywhere, regardless of the platform. It's the future of the Internet and of computing.

That's the spin, anyway. The reality is that Java hasn't really made much of a splash at all in the presentation of Web sites that is, on Web pages themselves. You'll see the occasional Java ticker or headline scroller. And sometimes you'll run across a nice, interactive Java application.

For instance, many of the online stock trading sites, including the NASDAQ home page and Quote.Com, let you view real-time stock charts and more with Java.

Not universally supported

But Java-heavy Web sites are few and far between. The problem: Java still isn't universally supported in Web browsers (low-end machines like Windows 3.1 don't do Java well at all, for instance), and even when it is supported, Java applets tend to run slowly and hog resources.

Java critics -- most specifically Microsoft Corp. -- say the Java situation is even worse than that.

Sun pushes what it calls 100% Pure Java -- that is, applications written entirely in Java -- as its end goal.

Those programs, say Sun, will run on any system and are more easily written than applications written in other languages.

Not so, claims Microsoft, which says that 100% Pure Java programs are slow, limited in functionality and only of value when tied to existing operating systems -- which of course means they are no longer 100% pure and cross-platform.

Indeed, the number of companies that have been able to write 100% Pure Java programs remains very small, and the word among those companies is that pure Java may not be all its cracked up to be.

To make the situation even worse, Microsoft has delivered its own version of Java that is not completely compatible with Sun's, plus it is closely aligned with Windows, much to Microsoft's advantage -- and Sun's chagrin.

All of this intrigue, infighting and backstabbing adds up to what passes for high drama in the computer/Internet industry. But what does it all mean for online marketers and Web content providers?

Java could slow you down

For starters, be very careful when you plan -- or have pitched to you by Web design shops -- Web sites with heavy Java-based front-ends. The site is likely to be slow and not work equally for all of your visitors. In fact, Java support in different browsers appears to be widening, not lessening. That's a big problem on the public Web.

Meanwhile, animated GIFs, emerging Dynamic HTML and even plug-ins like Shockwave handle Web animation and interactive presentation much better than Java. And Java programming doesn't come cheap. So make sure any Java effects are worth it.

That said, Java is having some significant impact in less visible areas of the Web. Java programs running on the server are finding success at many Web sites.

Most notably, Starwave runs most of its programming on Java-based servers. On some of its sites, like ESPNet SportsZone, it has also been able to generate innovative Java-based Web content, such as interactive stats and game applications.

Big win in intra/extranets

But perhaps Java's biggest win -- not surprisingly since this is a hard-core programming language -- comes in intranet and extranet sites. Sun is also making big waves with small Java programs that can run embedded in small devices -- such as household appliances -- and even in smart cards, which could be a big boon to electronic commerce.

In the end, Java remains very promising and can claim some major successes. It's just not popping up in the most obvious, or visible, places.

Richard Karpinski is editor at large for Internet Week and author of "Beyond HTML" from publisher Osborne/McGraw Hill.

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