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Java vs. Node.js: An epic battle for developer mind share

Peter Wayner | Feb. 18, 2015
Here’s how the enterprise stalwart and onetime script-kiddie toy stack up in a battle for the server room.

In the history of computing, 1995 was a crazy time. First Java appeared, then close on its heels came JavaScript. The names made them seem like conjoined twins newly detached, but they couldn't be more different. One of them compiled and statically typed; the other interpreted and dynamically typed. That's only the beginning of the technical differences between these two wildly distinct languages that have since shifted onto a collision course of sorts, thanks to Node.js.

If you're old enough to have been around back then, you might remember Java's early, epic peak. It left the labs, and its hype meter pinned. Everyone saw it as a revolution that would stop at nothing less than a total takeover of computing. That prediction ended up being only partially correct. Today, Java dominates Android phones, enterprise computing, and some embedded worlds like Blu-ray disks.

For all its success, though, Java never established much traction on the desktop or in the browser. People touted the power of applets and Java-based tools, but gunk always glitched up these combinations. Servers became Java's sweet spot.

Meanwhile, what programmers initially mistook as the dumb twin has come into its own. Sure, JavaScript tagged along for a few years as HTML and the Web pulled a Borg on the world. But that changed with AJAX. Suddenly, the dumb twin had power.

Then Node.js was spawned, turning developers' heads with its speed. Not only was JavaScript faster on the server than anyone had expected, but it was often faster than Java and other options. Its steady diet of small, quick, endless requests for data have since made Node.js more common, as Web pages have grown more dynamic.

While it may have been unthinkable 20 years ago, the quasi-twins are now locked in a battle for control of the programming world. On one side are the deep foundations of solid engineering and architecture. On the other side are simplicity and ubiquity. Will the old-school compiler-driven world of Java hold its ground, or will the speed and flexibility of Node.js help JavaScript continue to gobble up everything in its path?

Where Java wins: Rock-solid foundation
I can hear the developers laughing. Some may even be dying of heart failure. Yes, Java has glitches and bugs, but relatively speaking, it's the Rock of Gibraltar. The same faith in Node.js is many years off. In fact, it may be decades before the JavaScript crew writes nearly as many regression tests as Sun/Oracle developed to test the Java Virtual Machine. When you boot up a JVM, you get 20 years of experience from a solid curator determined to dominate the enterprise server. When you start up JavaScript, you get the work of an often cantankerous coalition that sometimes wants to collaborate and sometimes wants to use the JavaScript standard to launch passive-aggressive attacks.

 

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