JavaOne provides a good barometer of the current fads hitting IT. Three years ago, Java discovered open source; two years ago, it was Ajax; while last year was a non-event. But this year, the rich client’s back, baby.
In fact, this being our tenth JavaOne (which we covered remotely this year – too much darn travel), the spotlight on the client was déjà vu all over again. Covering our first JavaOne back in 1998, most of the booth traffic was around demos showing Java applets adding animation to word, numbers, and pictures on the browser. Ironically, we could have cared less about the animated browsers; instead what piqued our attention was this startup company called WebLogic, which made a bet on Enterprise Java Beans (EJBs) before the standard was approved. More importantly, their message was, forget the animations, the true value of Java was back on the server.
You know the rest of the story. Java’s early stab at rich client fell prey to bandwidth hurdles (those were the days of dial-up) and the nagging issue of browser compatibility. The Flash runtime stole eventually the thunder, literally.
But we digress.
This year’s appearance by Neil Young set the tone: it’s all about really rich multimedia, the type of stuff where Plain Old Ajax (POA?) runs out of gas. Yes, Sun made some announcements about its open source Glassfish appserver (a new telco edition was coming out), but this year’s big announcement was the roadmap for JavaFX, the rich Java client framework that Sun first announced last year.
Thanks to Neil Young, JavaOne made the news, but the news was hardly about Java. The headlines read, Neil Young is beginning release of his entire music and video archives on Blu-Ray, making it the first serious music collection to hit the new high-def DVD format. But it was funny seeing pictures showing Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz barely squeezed into the frame as a rock fan. The Java connection? Java lets you have a real interactive experience with Blu-Ray, rather than the rudimentary front, back, right, left navigation you get with run of the mill DVDs.
Back to JavaFX, it’s Sun’s all-Java answer to Adobe Flex/AIR and Microsoft Silverlight. To recap, JavaFX is a programming framework for accessing the rich media capabilities that to some extent were already part of the Java SE desktop spec, plus new ones such as the streaming audio and video codecs from On2 that Sun just announced it was licensing. And with the whole deal is yet another new scripting language, JavaFX Script, which would make all the rich media capabilities of Java accessible to web designers. Just like Microsoft Silverlight, and its associated scripting languages, this is yet another play for the Adobe Dreamweaver crowd.
During the keynote, Sun splashed demos showing screen renderings of the kinds of spinning, 3D spheres that for us rekindled memories of demos of the first multimedia PCs of the early 90s, and the finite element model renderings of CADCAM systems using souped-up graphics cards a few years before that. Some demos never change. We also saw a demo of Java applets (remember them?) being dragged and dropped off the browser to the desktop, where you could persist them as a regular local app –- which in its own weird way could be construed as Sun buying into Microsoft’s Software + Services vision blending the cloud with local client.
Ever since Sun hatched JavaFX a year ago, we wondered about why the world needed yet another multi-platform rich client framework, as Adobe would have proven a convenient multi-platform partner. But that was based on the dated perception of Sun viewing Microsoft as its primary rival. In fact, it’s much more nuanced picture, given (1) Sun’s and Microsoft’s interoperability détente; (2) the increasingly intense rivalry between NetBeans and Eclipse for Java development platforms; and (3) competition for the hearts and minds of Rich Internet Application (RIA) developers and designers, where for now it’s advantage Adobe.
And that’s where you get into a battle of lies, damn lies, and statistics. Sun and Adobe are battling over whose runtime is more ubiquitous in the connected world. Adobe claims that the Flash Player reaches over 98% of Internet-enabled desktops in “mature” economies (the number drops to 97% when rest of world is factored in), compared to 84% for Java. Sun counters that the JVM is on 90.7% of all Internet-connected desktops, plus virtually all smart phones produced within the last three years. Well not quite. The iPhone is expressly omits Java support, and of course, there are Windows Smart Phones. Adobe has Flash Lite for mobile devices, but it hasn’t published studies showing killer penetration.
Nonetheless, when you parse the numbers and statements, it’s clear that Sun views Adobe as it main rival for the Rich Internet client. JavaFX is Sun’s stake in the ground for its argument that the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is the place to do your multimedia, rather than the Flash plug-in. And that’s why Sun is trying to reopen the barn door, even after some of the horses have galloped out.