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Alan Williamson's April editorial was read by more than 100,000 people within two hours of its posting at www.sys-con.com/java. Over 500 readers responded within hours of its publication. The editorial was instantly picked up and simultaneously published at the Slashdot.org and JavaLobby.org Web sites.

The Great Java Debate has been raging as a direct result of the technical points raised by Alan Williamson, Java Developer's Journal editor-in-chief, in his editorial (Vol. 7, issue 4) about C#, Microsoft's rival language to Java.

Everyone had been talking about C#, Williamson felt, and in true Microsoft "Chinese whispers" style, it spread rapidly. "We felt it was time for JDJ to find out the real truth behind this new language and present the facts as we found them," he says.

There will always be particularly virulent controversy whenever an industry commentator mentions Java and Microsoft Corp. in the same breath. Comments posted to the Java Developer's Journal Web site (www.sys-con.com/java/article.cfm?id=1401) range from praise such as this from business consultant David Bolsover ([email protected]) who writes, "I have to agree with much of what Alan wrote in his editorial - the level of ignorance and misunderstanding among so-called IT professionals is astounding" to dramatic criticism such as this from Canadian software developer Christian Ouellet ([email protected]), who strongly believes that such an editorial "is not what the Java community needs" to the extent that, as he says: "that's why I will burn all my JDJ issues..."

Well, Java always did evoke strong emotions!

"Java Developer's Journal is proud to take the lead in peering over the horizon; that's what readers (developers) expect from us," says editor-in-chief Williamson. "That makes me kind of chief scout on behalf of the readership, heading up the gullies and reporting back on what I find."

"The Java community is one of the most passionate and open set of people I have seen in my life," he says, "and this strength will ensure that Java will be a formidable force against the alternatives that come up on the radar, such as Microsoft's C#."

The feedback generated falls into two camps: those who feel the writing is on the wall for Java, and those who believe that Java has never been stronger and that never before have we seen so many applications and general forward movement in the Java space as we see today.

Sun Needs to Wake Up and Smell the Java
"Alan Williamson is right and many are too blind to see," writes Steven Tower ([email protected]). "I've been a Java developer for almost seven years now," he continues. "I was very lucky to have gotten in on the ground floor. However, I have discussed lately with other developers that we really are at a crossroads. Sun has been arrogant to the point of insult and has shrugged off real concerns and problems. Sun needs to completely embrace their community, open source and otherwise. They need to wake up and smell the Java, so to speak."

Tower explains: "I hope and expect Java to be my language of choice for years to come. But I can't deny a viable alternative. Sun has completely failed on the desktop. Yeah, you can argue, oh look at this great app and that one, but truth be told Sun blew it; OS/2 had some great apps too. If C# makes even small inroads on the server and on the desktop, Java is in real trouble. Microsoft doesn't need massive wins; once they have their foot in the door on both, they will start to squeeze on all sides. Don't hide your heads in the sand or hold them so high in arrogance in the belief that because they haven't already, Microsoft won't find a way."

Developers like to think about the look and feel of an app they plan to develop, and they like to think about the algorithms that will make it run efficiently. If Java happens to be the best language for the job, then that's what they'll use. But they're not tied to any language, and this is why - as Williamson was trying to point out - it's important for Javaland to consider the potential rise of C# very carefully.

Java Will Benefit from Some Healthy Competition
"He's right on the money!" says Michael Julson ([email protected]). "I agree with Alan's suggestions and beliefs of where Java might be in the future. Sun has been busy fracturing the language into so many pieces with the hope that it will be the language for all situations and all needs. Because of this fracturing, it's become a weaker language and has suffered."

"I welcome C#," Julson continues. "With its similarities to Java, it puts some tougher competition to Sun, IBM, et al, and will make the language better off for it. Beyond that, I'll be able to use it for desktop apps that don't crawl at a snail's pace."

David Bolsover, mentioned earlier, echoed this theme of the responsibility that Java supporters have to spread the word. "The Java community must make renewed efforts to communicate the merits of Java to the wider community if it is to survive," he says. "Personally, I think Sun must take the lead in this - a few well-placed full page ads in national daily papers wouldn't go amiss, free CDs on magazine covers - anything that promotes the Java message."

And Aisha Fenton ([email protected]) too feels that Williamson is sounding a very timely rallying cry: "C# is set to become the dominant client-side language," she explains. "MS will make it very fast and a natural choice to program in for Windows (even games could be easily written in it, since they'll have good Direct X support). We can't just ignore it and attack anyone that tries to talk about it. We have five years to make Java better, let's get going."

Nobody Knows What's Going to Happen
"It's just branding. Get over it," advises Jason Norman ([email protected]), a health systems software engineer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.

"Let's face it," Norman says, "nobody knows what's going to happen. On the one hand we have MS. They have a pretty strong following in the business world. Their branding is fantastic. They have all sorts of cool commercials (however cryptic and uninformative they may be) and for some strange reason, lots of people believe in them."

"On the other hand," he continues, "we have Java, billions of lines of Java code floating around the Internet. There are lots of enterprise applications and systems in place, millions and millions of dollars already invested. Who will want to basically flush away everything they already have just to jump on MS's latest buzzword?"

"Just calm down," adds Norman. "In five years, neither Java nor .NET (if it is still around) will be anything like they are now. This whole debate will seem silly and pointless."

Critically Important Commentary or Soul Selling?
Miles Parker ([email protected]) is in no doubt: "What an incredibly important commentary," he declares. "It is literally laughable to suggest that Alan has some kind of pro-MS, anti-Java bent. Instead, what he's offering is something we all need to hear."

"Strangely," Parker continues, "companies and developer communities have never lost by overestimating Microsoft; they have always lost by underestimating them!...Please, please, let us not be like Netscape ("we own the browser market"), IBM, Sybase, (soon to be Palm), and so many companies in between."

Referring to some of the criticisms that the editorial provoked, Parker comments: "That Alan has received such a load of BS because he is willing to ask real questions is dismaying, to say the least, and makes me think that Java developers are more concerned about living in a state of comfortable and smug denial than fighting to protect the diversity and strength that Java and associated tools have provided."

"If we aren't honest with ourselves and willing to fight this battle day to day in the trenches," he continues, "we will lose, and indeed there will not be much left of Java in five years. Ask yourself, what did you think of the prospects of Netscape in 1997? Now we know that they were already doomed, due in large part to their own arrogance. We can't afford to have our heads in the sand! .NET is a very real threat."

Christophe de Dinechin ([email protected]) believes no computer language can expect immortality, Java included. "Yes, Java is going to die," he says, "and five years might be a good time frame. But C# is not the reason. The reason is that we will need to do things in five years that Java doesn't do well. A new environment will replace Java, just as Java replaced C++ when the Internet became the place to be, just as C++ replaced C, just as C replaced Pascal, etc. New tasks=new programming language."

"By this reasoning, however," de Dinechin adds, "C# should not displace Java, simply because it only does what Java does, with a little more. Naturally, C# has the capability to evolve."

Avram Aelony ([email protected]) disagrees that Java has only five years left. "There seem to be quite a few elderly languages with less promise than Java," he points out, "that refuse to die. Diversity is good. If you could write an app in your favorite idiomatic language and the compiler's task was to make it run fast anywhere, then there's also room for C# in the world."

For Sarwar Mansoor ([email protected]), however, C# is simply not something to be mentioned in polite company. "After reading this I have lost faith in JDJ," he complains. "I thought this was a true journal on Java. I am reading Java Pro from now on. I code for a living and love coding, but I am not selling my soul."

John Harrisburg ([email protected]) takes issue with this. "You can read JavaPro until they go out of business just like JavaReport did," he retorts. "Do you remember Java Report? Where are they now? Gone....JDJ is the only honest Java magazine out there."

Tools Are the Key

British developer Nick Riordan ([email protected]) returns the discussion to a more technical level. "I spent 10 years building apps exclusively for the Microsoft platform using Microsoft tools (C and C++)," he explains. "Two years ago I changed jobs and have since been working with Java/CORBA and EJB. I like Java, but I think C# offers similar benefits. It has already been said in this discussion that the client is important, and let's face it, Swing is probably the weakest area of Java."

"But my real issue," Riordan goes on, "is the lack of proper tools for Java. If you've spent any time working with MS technologies, you really appreciate the properly integrated, high-performance, polished feel - it makes development a pleasure. Recently I moved across to IDEA as my IDE in Java - it's the best Java IDE I've found so far (I want to like NetBeans, but it never seems to be finished and the performance stinks). IDEA is about as good as Visual C++ 4.2 - a product that shipped five years ago."

"I want seamless end-to-end debugging (client, middle tier, SQL)," says Riordan. "I want high speed - and no performance degradation when running under the debugger. I want folding editors, proper dialog editing, etc., etc. This is the point: you can be so much more productive under C# just because of the tools."

Is a "Religious" Following a Symptom of Decline?
What does this whole passionate discussion of the future of Java mean? A very thought-provoking perspective comes from Mark Miller ([email protected]), who sees what he claims are signs of an oft-repeated cycle of behavior.

"I've seen this happen too often in the technological world," he says, "and I've been in it since the early 1980s. It's a pattern. A technology starts faltering, and the ways part. Some people use it until they feel its usefulness is exhausted and then move on to something else. The others form a cultlike following that is dead set against using any other technology aside from the one they love."

It's this cultlike behavior that Miller claims to discern in the current behavior of what he sees as Javaland's die-hards and in their reactions to Alan Williamson's editorial.

"They say things like, 'If only they would do X, then people would see how great it is and start using it'...They don't look at integrating other useful technologies, because, of course, theirs is so wonderful. They develop strong biases against outside technologies, in fact. They don't see their own technology's weaknesses; they don't want to see them."

"Don't make this a religious or social movement," he concludes, "Make it a wake-up call to Sun that they need to fundamentally change the way they approach Java's develop- ment."

What do you think? What is the future of Java? What should be done to boost Java? Can Java and C# coexist peacefully? To add your comments, go to www.sys-con.com/java/article.cfm?id=1401.

Author Bio
Jeremy Geelan, editorial director of Wireless Business & Technology, is also a regular commentator on alternative social, political, economic, and technological futures for a variety of European journals and newspapers. [email protected]

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