Java Language Gives Apple a Leg Up
Underdog computermaker may benefit from innovations in Internet graphics
Java may be worth just 14 points in Scrabble, but the new computer language from Sun Microsystems may be a lifesaver for much-maligned Apple Computer.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent months, Java has gotten a lot of attention for its ability to bring animation and special effects to pages on the World Wide Web. But what Apple Computer is banking on is Java's ability to be used on any computer platform seamlessly.
Thus Java has the potential to let Apple break into the mainstream computer market, which has for years been dominated by IBM-compatible computers based on Intel microprocessors and running operating systems from Microsoft.
Because Java is a portable language that runs on a simulated "virtual machine," programs written in Java can run just as well on the Macintosh PowerPC microprocessors, which are manufactured by Motorola, as they can on chips made by Intel.
Likewise, Java does not depend on the intricate details of the computer's operating system, which means that the same Java program can run without modifications on a Macintosh running Apple's MacOS, an IBM-compatible running Microsoft Windows 95, or even a high-powered workstation using the Unix operating system.
Critics, however, are concerned about the security of Java programs, and have found flaws that would allow hackers to take over a computer using Java. Sun has responded that the problems are details with the way the code is written, not its fundamental design and has issued corrections.
Right now, most Java programmers are concentrating their energies on so-called "applets," programs that automatically get downloaded when you look at a particular page on the World Wide Web, the graphic part of the Internet. Without Java, Web pages are static - they don't change until the user clicks on something and sends a command to a computer somewhere else on the Internet. But with Java, programmers can create Web pages that come alive with spinning images, tumbling cartoon characters, and moving marquees.
And computer users can expect to see Java doing more in the future. Using Java, a catalog company might download a "smart form" to your Web browser that would automatically total your orders plus shipping. The IRS could download tax forms that do their own math. A few years from now, if you want to set up a video conference, you might use Java to download a desktop conferencing system. People have already written games such as tic-tac-toe in Java.
In addition to writing tiny programs designed to run within Web pages, people can write programs like word processors and spreadsheets using Java.
If you have a connection to the Internet, you can see Java in action on Sun's Java site, http://java.sun.com/.
To see the animations come alive, you need to have a Web browser that understands the Java language. Today, the only browsers that do are Netscape's Navigator and Sun's Hot Java browser. But within a few months, Java should be showing up in browsers sold by other companies. Even Microsoft has said it will abandon its competing system, called Blackbird, and license Java from Sun instead.
Another firm that's jumping on the Java bandwagon is Natural Intelligence, a small consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. The company's new Java system, called Roaster, allows programmers to create full-fledged application programs that run on any platform, says Joshua Wachs, the company's president.