What began as an experiment in consumer electronics in the early 1990s celebrates its 20th anniversary as a staple of enterprise computing this week. Java has become a dominant platform, able to run wherever the Java Virtual Machine is supported, forging ahead despite the rise of rival languages and recent tribulations with security.
Java's road to dominance hinged on a pivot of sorts. The language debuted as an object-oriented programming tool in 1995, emerging from five years of work by Sun Microsystems' Green Team, which included James Gosling and Mike Sheridan, among others. The team was looking to merge information and programming to make Web-surfing more dynamic and to target the convergence of digital consumer devices and computers, both client-side concerns. As such, Java, which was originally known as "Oak," first gained prominence for its client-side applet technology, but later found its long-term groove in evolving toward the server side, thanks to the business aims of its closest supporters Sun, IBM, and Oracle, analyst Jeffrey Hammond of Forrester Research, recalls.
"It turned out write once, run everywhere' was too hard across the fragmentation of all the client-side devices, but it did work reasonably well across the less chaotic, but still segmented server architectures that the various vendors were investing in," Hammond says. "Java's VM turned out to be easier for most devs than writing and porting C code, and [it] had good vendor support."
The state of Java today
Thanks to that early momentum, Java today enjoys 1 billion Java downloads per year and is used on 97 percent of enterprise desktops, according to numbers from Oracle. Indeed, Java development remains a good skill for developers to have, supporting an estimated 9 million Java developers, with Java reigning at or near the top in language popularity indexes such as Tiobe, PyPL, and RedMonk, as well in job openings on the Dice.com site.
"Java is the only other language, besides C and C++, that has survived the test of time over all these years," although it has seen its ups and downs, says Arun Gupta, who was involved in Java development at Sun beginning in 1999 and now focuses on Java middleware as director of developer advocacy at Red Hat. "All the major industries run some form of Java in their mission-critical deployments. Only a technological apocalypse would render Java irrelevant in the future."
These days, Java is under the stewardship of Oracle as a result of its January 2010 acquisition of Sun. The platform went open source in 2006, although not everyone was pleased with Sun's plan of action. IBM, for one, wanted the Apache Software Foundation to take charge of Java.
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