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The Java SAGA"Sun's Java is the hottest thing on the Web since Netscape. Maybe hotter. But for all the buzz, Java nearly became a business-school case study in how a good product fails. The inside story of bringing Java to the market."
By David Bank
With three minutes to go before the midnight deadline in August 1995, Sun Microsystems engineer Arthur van Hoff took one last look at Java and HotJava, the company's new software for the World Wide Web, and pondered what his colleagues call Arthur's Law: Do it right, or don't do it. Satisfied, the Dutch programming wizard encrypted the files containing the software's source code, moved them to an Internet site, and e-mailed the key to Netscape Communications Corporation, Java's first commercial customer. Five years after the project was launched, Java was done - with a minute to spare.
As he sat at his workstation ready to push the button, van Hoff had good reason to hesitate. Since early versions of the software were released in December 1994, Java has unleashed stratospheric expectations. While today's Web is mostly a static brew - a grand collection of electronically linked brochures - Java holds the promise of caffeinating the Web, supercharging it with interactive games and animation and thousands of application programs nobody's even thought of. At the same time, Java offers Sun and other Microsoft foes renewed hope that Bill Gates's iron grip on the software business can be pried loose. Microsoft rules the desktop, but as networking expands its role, says van Hoff, Java could turn out to be "the DOS of the Internet." Indeed, Sun is rushing to make Java a de facto standard on the burgeoning Web. If Sun succeeds, even Microsoft will have a hard time muscling in.
Software developers are busy shaping Java into applications that will add new life to Web browsers like Netscape and Mosaic, producing programs that combine real-time interactivity with multimedia features that have been available only on CD-ROM. (Java is a programming language, HotJava an "interpreter" installed onto a browser, enabling Java programs delivered over the Web to run on the desktop.) What's a Java application? Point to the Ford Motor website, for instance, and all you'll get are words and pictures of the latest cars and trucks. Using Java, however, Ford's server could relay a small application (called an applet) to a customer's computer.
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From there, the client could customize options on an F-series pickup while calculating the monthly tab on various loan rates offered by a finance company or local bank.
Add animation to these applications and the possibilities are endless. Hollywood and Madison Avenue are salivating. "Java allows us to do the things that advertisers and studios are asking us to do," says Karl Jacob, CEO and chief technologist at Dimension X Inc., a San Francisco company creating 3-D websites using Java. "Until now, everything on the Web was fizzling, not sizzling."
Even if Java turns piping hot, how might it lift profits at Sun, which turns out Unix-based workstations and servers for its bread and butter? It's rumored that Netscape paid a paltry US$750,000 to license HotJava (escaping any per-copy charges), a figure that Sun, whose annual revenues will top $6 billion this year, does not dispute. Sun is giving away Java and HotJava free for noncommercial use, in a fast-track attempt to make them the standard before Microsoft begins shipping a similar product, codenamed Blackbird, in early 1996.
Java is unlikely ever to become a major profit center at Sun, though any increase in Web traffic is bound to increase sales of Sun's workstations and servers. But in this case, emotion may be at least as important as profit. Sun chief Scott McNealy is a fierce competitor, and his blood lust for Bill Gates has fueled the Java project from the beginning. McNealy is especially excited about Java's ability to run on any computer, using Windows, Mac OS, Unix, or any other operating system - posing a threat to Microsoft hegemony. Spinning into the future, McNealy even sees the day when disposable word processors and spreadsheets will be delivered over the Web via Java, priced per use. "This blows up Gates's lock and destroys his model of a shrink-wrapped software that runs only on his platform," effuses McNealy.
Maybe he's dreaming. But Java's progression thus far is a lesson in what can happen when a major company loosens the reins on some of its most precocious talent. The story of Java also highlights the sometimes serendipitous nature of technological development in the face of vague and fast-changing markets.
The origins of Java go back to 1990, when the World Wide Web was barely a glimmer in a British programmer's eye. The personal computer was in its ascendancy, and many inside and outside Sun thought the company had missed major opportunities in the desktop market. Its high-end workstation and server markets were rolling along fine, but as PC use spread across the landscape, the company faced being stranded in a narrowing slice of the computer market. Sun machines had a reputation for being too complicated, too ugly, and too nerdy for mass consumption.
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Thus, McNealy was more than ready to listen when a well-regarded 25-year-old programmer with only three years at the company told him he was quitting. Patrick Naughton played on McNealy's ice hockey team. Over beers, Naughton told McNealy that he was quitting to join NeXT Computer Inc., where, he said, "they're doing it right." McNealy paused for a second then shrewdly asked Naughton a favor. "Before you go, write up what you think Sun is doing wrong. Don't just lay out the problem. Give me a solution. Tell me what you would do if you were God."
The following morning, Naughton threw his heart and soul into the challenge.
He typed out a list of Sun's short comings along with his own glowing appraisal of NeXT's critically acclaimed NeXTstep operating system. Twelve screens later, he e-mailed his report to McNealy, who forwarded it to the entire management chain
A firestorm was ignited. Among Naughton's suggestions: hire an artist to pretty up Sun's uninspired interfaces; pick a single programming tool kit; focus on a single windows technology, not several; and, finally, lay off just about everybody in the existing windows group. (Naughton figured they wouldn't be needed if the previous suggestions were taken.)
Naughton held off NeXT while he awaited the response. The following morning, his e-mail box was bursting. Hundreds of CC'd readers had read his recipe for what ailed Sun and had agreed in a resounding chorus. A typical reaction: "Patrick wrote down everything I say to myself in the morning but have been afraid to admit." Another voice was that of James Gosling, a remarkable programmer whose opinions carried great weight higher up. Naughton was "brutally right,'' Gosling e-mailed. "Somewhere along the line, we've lost touch with what it means to produce a quality product."
Naughton joined what one participant called a "bitchfest" attended by a number of high-level engineers. It was John Gage, Sun's science office director, says Naughton, who really dug in, asking, "What is it you really want to do?" The group blue-sky'd until 4:30 the next morning. During those wee hours, they came up with some core principles for a new project: consumers are where it's at; build a small environment created by a small team - small enough to fit around a table at a Chinese restaurant; and make the environment, whatever it may become, include a new generation of machines that are personal and simple to use - computers for normal people.