Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 5


Impressions of Java Day

by John December (

A View of Two Billboards

NEW YORK--I looked south out the window of the 50th floor of the Equitable Building at 52nd Street and Seventh Avenue in mid-town Manhattan. Below, where the towers of Seventh Avenue lined a pathway to Times Square, two billboards caught my eye: The first, on the north edge of Times Square, was a Maxwell House Coffee ad with its familiar up-ended cup, with one perfect drop suspended in eternal satisfaction: good to the last drop.

Further uptown, I could see Microsoft's latest appeal: a billboard depicting a huge bird with outstreched wings made from boxes of Microsoft software. The catch phrase was also familiar: Where do you want to go today?

The New Fashions of the Web

I was in the City for Java Day, a Sun Microsystems' seminar examining their latest foray into the Web. Earlier, in an auditorium with hundreds of other eager Internet enthusiasts, I had applauded demonstrations of Java projected onto a large screen flanked by an enormous coffee cup that periodically released plumes of steam.

We applauded the latest innovations. Netscape Navigator's new 2.0 browser interpreted Java applets right before our eyes. Dimension X's, advertisement for Sega's new game, Vectorman, made a big splash with its dramatic graphic opening and pulsing music. The Web looked suddenly different: instead of the static web pages of text and graphics, we heard sound and saw motion. And instead of the respond-and-request cycle of gateway programming, or the crude animations of server push/client pull techniques, we saw true interactivity. We applauded as if the latest prète a porter fashions were swinging from the hips of slim models.

The Significance of Java

I sensed a dramatic shift in the way the Web can be used. Rather than just delivering static information, programmers using Java can deliver content that moves and interacts with users. Much like Mosaic, which first unified the Web more than two years ago, Java's innovation is its ability to seamlessly deliver executable content to browsers. Delivering executable content over networks seamlessly, to a single, consistent interface which is also a Web browser, is a fairly profound change.

In essence, the Web with Java is a software delivery system. Combined with Java-enabled browsers, programmers can create anything--spreadsheets, editors, simulations, animations, learning modules--and deliver these at the click of a mouse, to users' Java-enabled browsers. And these applications are platform-independent, which means that the same software can be delivered over networks with heterogenous computers. No more Mac version and PC version and Unix version of content developers have to create. Java does for software what the X Window system did for graphical user interfaces: create an open, platform-independent environment for developers. No longer will programmers have to create separate versions of Java software for different platforms.

Java Jitters

I couldn't help, though, but feel a bit queasy, uneasy standing on the 50th floor. With the whole Web world whipped to such a frenzy, how will this technology unfold? The Web's burgeoning presence over the past two years has made many people millionaires and has buoyed a global online industry. Java ups the ante again, at a time when the Web community is reeling from the recent problems Netscape has had with secure transactions in its browsers.

And for Web information developers and users, it is another time of change, in a chain of events that has seemed like some warped version of a Pee Wee Herman movie on fast forward: a frenzy of activity, technology that barely works before it is outdated, discarded, or found lacking.

What of the general public, who are just now knowing the Web? Applets raise the level of knowledge required to participate in the expressions on the Web; they raise the level of technology information providers must master. They make every non-Java-enabled Web browser in existence a relic; and perhaps, in the typical pattern of innovation adoption, every non-Java web page somehow quaint, out of style, something HotWired wouldn't do.

Java mainlines software right to the user and transforms the Web browser to a flexible, potentially cross-platform, "information appliance" that serves as a window to most online interaction, communication, information, and computation.

Java stirs the medium of the Web with many possibilities for expression. Like people learning to use radio, movie cameras, or the written word for the first time, we may struggle with the new genre of communication Java enables, a rich system of interactive global hypermedia. We will need to find the vocabulary of this language to express something new and, more importantly, meaningful and significant. It is not enough just to know the technical details of Java and its applets. New Java programmers will undoubtably create applets that are megabytes in size, that annoy and distract users on web pages much like the BLINK tag of the early Netscape days.

I remember those two billboards again: the coffee that promises a jolt awake; and Microsoft's enormous, ragged bird slumbering in clouds, lazily, with outstreched cardboard wings perhaps already extinct. [CMC TOC]

John December is author of Presenting Java (Indianapolis: Sams.Net) and "Java Takes Manhattan," in this issue.

Copyright © 1995 by John December. All Rights Reserved.

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