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After extensive beta testing, Sun Microsystems has released update 10 of its Java Platform Standard Edition 6, with many significant enhancements. Will this lead to a resurgence of Java applications on the desktop and the Web?

On 21 October 2008, Sun Microsystems released update 10 of its Java Platform Standard Edition 6, usually abbreviated to Java SE 6u10 or (using the internal version number for this update) release 1.6.0_10 build 33.

It might look like another minor Java update, but its much more than that.

Wikipedia has a handy Java version history, if you'd like to see what went before.

I attended the Australian leg of the first-ever Java world tour in Sydney, in 1996, about a year after Java was first announced. Since then, I've been following Sun and Java closely enough to understand pretty well what's being going on, as a dilettante rather than a full-time Java practitioner. I've dabbled with Java coding on IBM WebSphere and Lotus Domino server, for example.

That 1996 tour was sponsored by Sun, IBM, and Netscape (remember them?). As you'd expect, they were predicting that Java would "take over the world" as an application platform, but that's not quite what happened!

One big problem was the shenanigans by Microsoft who feared the effect that OS-agnostic Java might have on its Windows franchise and refused to play ball in terms of Java Virtual Machine support under Windows.

This led Sun to accuse them of trying to split the Java community and thus kill off Java. You'll get the gist of what happened from this 1998 article: "Microsoft's holy war on Java." My gosh, that does now seem such a long time ago.

Apart from the skirmishes with Microsoft, a few other issues bubbled to the surface and led to a decrease in the popularity of Java for developing and implementing desktop applications.

Firstly, there was a performance problem with initial earlier JREs (Java runtime environments). Earlier JVMs (Java virtual machines) tended to be slow because they used interpreted rather than compiled bytecodes. Java applications tended to be sluggish compared with those natively compiled (for example, from C or C++ languages).

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Another Java performance problem that surfaced (distinct from the issues with Microsoft Internet Explorer alluded to above) was the slowness in downloading Java applets from web servers prior to their executing in a browser.

Tips like this one abounded, yet you don't see all that many Java applications running inside browsers, so in this sense Java definitely has not "taken over the world."

The debate continued to rage in 2007/2008, see: True problem with Applets over at Javalobby.

Also, the technique of garbage collection used by the JVM for reclaiming no-longer-needed memory could cause noticeable slowdowns at times. There were other problems too, for example with so-called lazy verification of Java classes before they were loaded.

You've heard of "DLL Hell" I expect, a problem in the Microsoft Windows operating system environment  — if not, read this. Microsoft has worked on this, and to some extent ameliorated the problem with the introduction of its .NET Framework — specifically, via the use of .NET assemblies.

In similar vein, there's also a "JRE Hell" — to do with the profusion of JREs at different release levels, and the uncertainty about whether a particular system had a new-enough JRE installed to be capable of executing an application that used new features available in a recent JDK (Java Development Kit).

Fear of change (and the hard work needed to cope with it) has led many developers to stick with JDK 1.4 (released early 2002), rather than moving on to JDK 1.5 even though it offered useful new features.

For example, here's an unofficial mid-2008 poll of installed JDK versions which shows nearly 40% of those surveyed had not then moved to Java 5 (much less Java 6).

By the way, If you're confused about Java version naming, see here. It seems that Sun have picked up Microsoft's bad habit of changing direction on version naming every few years. This leads me to wonder if "Java 7" will come out at about the same time as "Windows 7" ... Now that would be amusingly piquant!

Interestingly, some of the criticisms of Java began to be levelled against .NET for the somewhat similar weak points of the two architectures (like garbage collection and the problems it causes for real-time computing).

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The issues about Java performance were addressed by Sun over the years, as summarized by Wikipedia here.

As experience was gained, Sun published technical guidance for developers such as Thirteen Great Ways to Increase Java Performance (from February 1997), and much more over the following decade.

So far, Java has been adopted mainly for enterprise server-based applications, and many very well-known organizations are heavy users of Java EE (Java Enterprise Edition).

You're probably by now asking whether Java will ever be able to run desktop applications with acceptable performance.

The architecture of certain of the fundamental aspects of the original Java platform meant that by the mid-2000s nothing much further could be done in the way of optimization without a radical new approach.

Well, the people at Sun have been beavering away at it for a number of years, and have reworked some of the underpinnings of the Java platform to overcome (or at least ameliorate) many of the shortcomings mentioned earlier in this article.

On 21 October 2008, Sun Microsystems released their much-anticipated Java Platform Standard Edition 6 Update 10 (Java SE 6u10).

"This customer-focused update features enhancements that improve the usability and performance of the Java Platform on desktop computers worldwide," they say, and "strengthen the foundation for the upcoming JavaFX Desktop."

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Over at Sun's blog The Planetarium they're crowing: "You've heard how it's fast to download, update and quick to start applications. How you can pull applets out of the browser and onto the desktop. How it comes with a new look and its graphics scream."

They're also referring to it as the Consumer JRE. ... "Consumers benefit from SE 6u10's improved startup time for Java applications and applets, the ability to drag Java applets directly from the browser and run them as desktop widgets, more powerful, stylized application graphics, a faster, simpler installation experience and a new cross-platform look and feel."

"For developers, Java SE 6u10 provides a built-in Deployment Toolkit that ensures end users are running the latest Java SE version and a new Java plug-in that offers full browser independence, complete interoperability with Web 2.0 technologies, and supports multiple Java versions being run simultaneously on the same machine."

Commenting on the importance of this Java SE update, Sun's Vice President of Java Client Engineering Jeet Kaul said that "Sun is making Java easier to install, faster to start and more reliable than ever, resulting in a monumental improvement to the overall consumer experience."

Will this be a turning point for increased adoption of Java on the desktop? Is Sun's effort too little and too late?

Will Microsoft with its Silverlight and Azure cloud environment take on greater market share? And what about Adobe Flex, and all those other platforms? As always, only time will tell.

Such competition is good. It's certainly encouraging to see all the vendors presenting contending products for our consideration.

Watch this space for more detailed follow-up reports about Java SE Update 10: the Java Quick Starter, the Java kernel, the Next-Generation Java Plug-In, the JDT (Java Deployment Toolkit) , improvements in graphics performance on Windows, plus "Nimbus" cross-platform look and feel, and more.

See all my articles, including podcasts ...
A Meaningful Look at Desktop and Enterprise Computing

Have some fun with a challenge or two that I've devised for you!
Go visit the iTWire TechWords Interactive Crosswords section.

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.

 

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