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.
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.
With the final release scheduled within a few months, Roaster will allow programmers to develop their programs on either a Macintosh or Windows computer and then run them on both platforms. "We definitely see the Mac as being a great development platform," Mr. Wachs says.
But Apple may have more to look forward to with Java than just being a great development platform.
For years, the Mac has been considered easier-to-use and more powerful than Win- dows systems. Last month PC World Magazine, a publication dedicated primarily to IBM-compatible computers, rated Apple's MacOS the best personal-computer operating system in the industry, ranking it easier-to-use than Microsoft's Windows 95, Windows NT, and IBM's OS/2 Warp.
For years, even people who wanted to buy Apple computers have been restricted, because many programs designed for Windows-based systems could not run on Apples.
Java could change that, says Herbert Delany, research director of advanced computing environments at the Gartner Group, a market-research firm in Stamford, Conn.
The Internet is also narrowing the gap between the two systems, Mr. Delany says.
"The functionality of the equipment when it is hooked up to the Web is no longer limited to what is in the box," he says. Instead, what matters is the speed of a computer's connection to the Internet, the quality of the computer's network software, and the computer's price.
Recent price cuts by Apple, combined with the new low-cost "clones" that are resulting from Apple's increased willingness to license its MacOS, makes the Apple platform extremely competitive for cost-conscious businesses, Delany says.
And Macs may be cheaper in the long-run as well, according to a 1995 study by the Gartner Group. When a company factors in the cost of hardware, software, training, and administration, the five-year cost of ownership to a business for a Macintosh computer is $35,124, compared with $41,439 for a Windows-based PC, the study said.
Meanwhile, Apple is also positioning itself to take advantage of the Internet. While Microsoft is busy modifying each of its applications to be "Internet aware," Apple is building the Internet into its new operating system with a component called Cyberdog.
Using Cyberdog, any Macintosh application will be able "to have Internet data embedded in [it]. Each time I open that document, [Cyberdog] will go back to the Net and refresh the page," says Scott Black, Apple's marketing manager for the product.
According to Black, Apple and several other companies are also developing a component that will execute Sun's Java language. This would make it possible to put Java animations, puzzles, and other applications into practically any Macintosh application.
But while current Apple users can experience Java by downloading a "beta" version of the Netscape browser, the real Java jolt won't happen until later this summer, when the first cross-platform Java applications begin to hit the street.
The first phase will probably be large corporations developing in-house applications for their own use, says Rick Eames, an engineering manager at Natural Intelligence.
Corporate developers "would like to do things, and would like to do them on a Mac. Until this point, it has been pretty much out of the enterprise picture."