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Java? It's So Nineties

Peter Yared, CEO of software maker ActiveGrid, spent a critical chapter of his career steeped in Java, the programming language developed by Sun Microsystems (SUNW). In the late 1990s, Yared was chief technology officer of NetDynamics, which pioneered an application server designed to boost the performance of Web sites. It was based squarely on then wildly popular Java. He went on to spend five years as an executive at Sun. So it's especially surprising that Yared holds this view: "Java is a dinosaur."

But Yared has good reason for thinking that way. His two-year-old company sells what he calls a "next generation" application server, used to build Web sites and corporate applications, that doesn't rely on Java. Instead, it's tied to open-source software packages, including the Linux operating system, the Apache Web server, the MySQL database, and a collection of so-called scripting languages that all start with the letter P -- Perl, Python, and PHP. Hence the acronym LAMP.

LIGHTING THE LAMP. Yared says developers far and wide are creating a new generation of Internet-based applications with LAMP and related technologies rather than with Java. Can it possibly be that Java -- once the hippest of hip software -- has become a legacy technology, as old and out of style as IBM's (IBM) mainframe computers and SAP's corporate applications? Mounting evidence points to yes.

Reports by Evans Data Corp., which does annual surveys of the activities of software developers, show Java use is slipping as LAMP and Microsoft's (MSFT) .NET technology gain traction. In North America, the percentage of developers who use Java as one of their principal programming languages declined to 47.9 in Evans' fall survey, vs. 51.4% in the fall of 2002. The same surveys show that while Java use is climbing in Asia, it's on the decline in Europe.

Meanwhile, .NET usage increased to 54.1% from 40.3% in the same period in North America, and exceeded Java use in Europe and Asia. In a different survey series, the use of PHP in North America grew to 36.1% this fall, from 26% in the fall of 2003. It grew almost as quickly in Europe and Asia. "There's more competition out there," says Evans President John Andrews. "These other technologies are catching hold. They're biting away at [Java's] share."

"I VEHEMENTLY DISAGREE." Another indicator of possible Java decline comes from shifts in the popularity of books being bought by developers. According to O'Reilly Media, the leading independent publisher of books for programmers, sales of Java-related books are off 4% so far this year, while sales of books related to AJAX, a new Web site-building formula used predominantly with open-source software packages, are up 68%. Java book sales are still much larger, however.

Sun is adamant that Java isn't losing momentum. "I vehemently disagree," says John Loiacono, executive vice-president of Sun's software division. "Is Java at the end of life? We think Java is just kicking in." He points to the continued strength of Java as a mainstay of large, complex corporate applications, as well as the popularity of Java in cell phones, where 600 individual models run Java, and seven of the top 10 mobile games are based on the technology.

Even as Java holds its own in key areas, interviews with more than a dozen tech industry players and analysts indicate the landscape is shifting in ways that disadvantage Java. That carries serious implications not only for Sun but companies including IBM, BEA Systems (BEAS), and jBoss, which have made huge bets on Java. If Java's luster dims, so does the appeal of products based on the language. And that creates inroads for competitors such as Microsoft and the non-Java faction of the open-source crowd.

NEW PROGRAM. Here's a look at a few of the seismic shifts underway. For one, many of the now-large companies built from the ground up to operate on the Internet don't make Java a major piece of their tech strategy. Those include Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO). The new generation of lighter-weight programming tools, including AJAX and PHP, are immensely popular with the Web 2.0 startups, including the likes of Friendster, Flickr, and Facebook. The new tools allow programmers with less training to build applications rapidly.

Browser pioneer Marc Andreessen, chairman of Zend, a PHP company, says the shift is like the one in the 1990s from traditional programming languages C and C+ to Java. "We're seeing it now with a big migration from Java to PHP in Web development," he says. Stats back him up. The number of Web sites using PHP has risen to 23 million today from zero in 2000, according to surveys by the Internet analysis firm Netcraft.

When Java emerged in the mid-1990s, it was seen as a potential antidote to Microsoft's hegemony. Using Java, software programmers and Web site developers could write a program once and run it on a wide variety of computer operating systems. Java failed to make a dent in Microsoft's desktop Windows monopoly, but it became a powerful force in the world of server computers, used for running large corporate applications and Web sites.

CORPORATE CONNECTION. So far, Java retains its stronghold in corporations -- even among heavy open-source software users. Red Hat (RHAT), the leading distributor of Linux software, recently created support programs for three separate groupings of Linux and related software. One is for simple Web sites and Web applications, and doesn't include Java. But the two other groupings, for more sophisticated Web sites and enterprise applications, have Java. "If you want to do more sophisticated things, you've got to have Java in it," says Tim Yeaton, senior vice-president for marketing at Red Hat.

But even in corporations, Java can't rest on its laurels. "You see that technology migrates from hackers to innovative users and eventually to the mainstream," says Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media. The situation at Merrill Lynch & Co. (MER) in New York is telling. The investment bank runs many of its newer math-heavy applications -- such as options, futures, and derivatives -- using just Linux and the Apache server.

These technologies are superior to Java in computational applications, says Andy Brown, chief technology architect at Merrill Lynch. "It's closer to the metal," he says. "When you write code on Linux there are less layers. You don't need Java for it." When it comes to writing new desktop applications for traders and salespeople, many are written with Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET programming tools. "It's very fast to develop," Brown says.

A WIDER .NET. Microsoft, which recently released an update of its .NET technology, says it's seeing gains across the board -- in large companies and from small, complex applications to simple ones. Market research backs it up. An October report by IDC shows that 35.7% of large corporations surveyed said they use .NET for their most important applications, compared with 25.3% for Java.

An earlier Jupiter Research report showed that 62% of midsize businesses have adopted .NET, vs. 36% for IBM's WebSphere technology, which is based on Java. Microsoft expects Java to gradually become less and less important for corporations. "The future of Java is to become an underlying programming framework that nobody makes any money on," says John Montgomery, a director in Microsoft's developer division. "It becomes a commodity."

Montgomery acknowledges that Microsoft hasn't done well with the Web 2.0 set, but he expects that to change. It has released a test version of server software that enables Web developers to easily use AJAX on top of Windows.

CLOSE RACE. Sun acknowledges that .NET is picking up steam in corporations. "There will be more than one language out there," says Sun's Loiacono. "Plus, it's Microsoft. They'll be a player." Still, he believes Java and .NET are essentially in a dead heat and denies that .NET has pulled out into the lead.

Sun, IBM, and other members of the Java community are steadily adding capabilities to the software, though at a slower pace than during its go-go years. At the same time, Sun has offered open-source versions of its Solaris operating system and related software packages as competition to LAMP.

IBM stands by its commitment to Java. Its WebSphere middleware is a multibillion-dollar business that grew 14% last quarter. Big Blue believes Java will remain a vital piece of technology for corporations. But when it comes to the dot-com world, IBM is hedging its bets. Earlier this year, it threw its weight behind PHP as a Web programming language.

"The culture at IBM isn't to get enamored with one technology," says Rod Smith, vice-president for emerging software technologies at IBM. "People want to do different things. We say, 'We can do that.'" And to Java's possible detriment, so do a rising number of other developers.

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