Java's Cup Runneth Over

The software world is hooked--even Microsoft can't ignore it

If you thought nothing could top Netscape madness, check out Java mania. It's no surprise that nerds are going bonkers over Sun Microsystems Inc.'s new Java software--after all, it promises to supercharge the Internet and thwart Microsoft Corp. to boot. But this may be the first time a software language has crossed over into pop-culture fame. Almost daily, uninvited visitors to Sun's JavaSoft unit in Cupertino, Calif., pose starry-eyed behind the Java sign while friends snap photos. Nescafe even wants Java inventor James Gosling to be a spokesman for its instant coffee. "Java is taking over the world," says Karl Jacob, chief executive of 13-month-old Web software developer Dimension X in San Francisco.

Is everybody drinking too much Starbucks, or what? Probably, but behind all the buzz, something real is brewing. Java lets software writers create compact "just-in-time" programs that can be dispatched across a network such as the Internet. On arrival, the "applet" automatically loads itself on a PC and runs--reducing the need for computer owners to install huge programs every time they need a new function. And unlike other programs, Java software can run on any type of machine--potentially breaking the Microsoft hammerlock on PC software and ushering in a new way of creating, selling, and using software.

Java's momentum is so strong that even Microsoft has agreed to embed Java in its Windows operating systems--which opens up a potential market of tens of millions of Windows users. And Microsoft is only one of the big names adopting Java. Apple Computer Inc. will use it in the Mac operating system, and IBM is building Java into every operating system from OS/2 for PCs to MVS for mainframes. With that kind of industry support, developers can count on a huge market for Java programs.

Later this month, more than 5,000 developers will attend Sun's second Java developers' conference in San Francisco. Already, by Sun's estimates, at least 10,000 Java applications are in development by programmers at major software makers such as Oracle and Computer Associates International and at corporations such as Morgan Stanley and Eastman Kodak.

But the greatest groundswell is coming from entrepreneurial programmers who see Java as their ticket to fame and fortune. "We bet the company on Java," says B.C. Krishna, vice-president for technology at FutureTense Inc., a Web software startup. Adds Adobe Systems Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive John E. Warnock: "There are a bazillion startups" writing Java programs.

Well, hundreds, anyway. The draw? By writing applets that can be sold--even rented--over the Net to a vast Java-ready market, startups can bypass traditional retail channels where they have little chance of getting shelf space. The cottage industry springing up around the Sun software reminds some hopefuls of the early 1980s, when the introduction of the IBM PC spawned software giants such as Microsoft and Lotus Development Corp. "This smells like the same kind of opportunity," says Rob Shostak, who in January started Webra Software, a maker of easy-to-use Java tools for jazzing up Web sites.

"WILD WEST." Shostak, a Borland refugee, is one of dozens of Silicon Valley programmers and managers who have quit their jobs to found Java startups. "It's like the Wild West," says Kim Polese, who earlier this year left her job as chief marketer for the language at Sun's JavaSoft subsidiary to launch a Java startup--although she's not divulging details just yet.

Can Java possibly live up to the hype? Even fans point out that Java is still technically primitive. And while it is designed to minimize the risks involved in downloading applets from the Net, security is still a big concern. Then there is the threat from Microsoft. Despite its endorsement of Java, the company is encouraging 4 million Windows programmers to stick with Visual Basic, a well-established language for writing Windows programs. Microsoft is also pushing ActiveX, a method for creating network-ready applets that it says is more efficient for Windows computers than Java. Many developers are hedging their bets--using Visual Basic and ActiveX as well as Java.

Java's shortcomings, in fact, are themselves igniting a new market. Specifically, Java has few of the software helpers, or tools, that make writing programs easier. Tools automate tasks, such as debugging, or make it possible to work with graphical icons, rather than arcane software code, to create programs. With Java, "We're at the level of banging rocks together," says Grady Booch, a programming expert at Rational Software Inc.

Once development tools are readily available, the number of Java applications could explode. Forrester Research estimates there will be $3 million worth of Java applets sold this year--and $629 million in 1999.

To help things along, Sun brought out Java WorkShop, the first Java tool, in March. Borland, which nearly vanished after trying to compete head-on with Microsoft, is preparing a Java tool kit called Latte. Symantec Corp. has Cafe. And IBM is working on a Java version of its Visual Age tool for the fall. In just the past three weeks, says Geoffrey Yang, partner with Institutional Venture Partners, he has seen 10 business plans for companies making Java tools. So far, he has invested $1.15 million in Webra.

For now, Java is mainly used by programmers to make Web pages come alive, by adding splashy graphics, animation, and real-time data updates. Dimension X, which has created Web sites for The Simpsons and Sega Enterprise Ltd.'s Vectorman game, plans to bring out Liquid Motion, a program to create animations with just a few mouse clicks, in late May.

STREET SALES. The real payoff, however, will come when Java is "robust" enough to be used in complex network-based applications. Software makers agree that the new way of programming could be instrumental in making corporate data accessible to more workers. Atlanta-based Dun & Bradstreet Software is readying a $50-per-person Java applet that will let employees issue a purchase request to a corporate server without having the whole, multimegabyte purchasing program installed on their PCs. Open Horizon Inc. of Belmont, Calif., and OpenConnect Systems Inc. of Dallas have created Java applets that let Web browsers view corporate databases and mainframe applications.

One of the first places this is happening is on Wall Street, usually a ready market for cutting-edge technology. Applix Inc., a 13-year-old Westboro (Mass.) maker of software that helps Wall Street traders and corporate managers analyze real-time financial data, has developed a new spreadsheet, code-named Espresso, that uses Java to automatically plug in live data drawn from information databases.

In fact, Java may blossom first on big corporate intranets, in-house networks based on Web software. The new software could save companies money because it overcomes the problem of having to write versions of new programs for each type of machine on the Net. "Java is a common denominator," says John S. Swanteck, a vice-president in the Capital Markets Div. of First Union National Bank in Charlotte, N.C., which is using Java to develop new programs. Plus, updated software can be zapped to every worker instantaneously, making it easier to administer large networks.

WHO'LL PAY? Java also could jump-start Internet commerce, which has been held back partly because consumers can't interact sufficiently with online merchants. Connect Inc., a nine-year-old Mountain View (Calif.) company that makes interactive commerce software, hopes to commercialize a Java applet it developed that helps people mix and match sets of products, such as home-theater components, to fit their budget and include the features they want.

Sun still has work to do before all these Java dreams can start coming true. For one, it has to avoid further bugs that have compromised security in some cases--a big concern for corporations worried about applets that could harbor viruses. And Sun is working on ways to let Java applets be saved to a local computer disk when they arrive. Now an applet must come across the Net--often slowly--each time it's used.

Another nagging detail: Until Internet junkies start paying for all those applets streaming across the Net, the Java gold rush won't make anybody rich. Slowly, startups are beginning to charge for their downloads. Sausage Software Pty. of Australia, for instance, has released the first of a series of "Snaglets" (snag means sausage Down Under) that it will sell to other developers for around $20 each. CEO Steve Outtrim expects to develop about 20 Snaglets a month.

There are bound to be Java shareware CD-ROMs soon, and Alan Baratz, president of Sun's JavaSoft unit, thinks online Java applet stores will emerge--perhaps growing out of sites such as Gamelan, a 1,000-applet collection run by EarthWeb, a New York developer. Says Baratz: "That could totally change the set of winners and losers" in software. That's what Java maniacs have in mind.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.