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Sun's dated Web programming language is getting a makeover; will new consumer-friendly versions attract more developers—and sales?
Nearly a decade ago, during the Internet's early heyday, Sun Microsystems' Java was the software of choice for companies that wanted to quickly deliver data from a back office to a customer's personal computer. As popular as it was, the language never made much money for Sun, thanks to a decision to license the software broadly. Java accounted for a tiny fraction of Sun's $13.1 billion in 2006 sales.
Today, the computing center of gravity has shifted toward highly interactive Web sites and software for mobile phones. And Sun is introducing a fresh crop of consumer-friendly Java products aimed at riding that new wave. The goal is to make Java more popular and generate demand for products based on the language at a time when Sun is struggling to stay profitable. That's no small task, considering Sun (SUNW) faces competition from do-it-yourself open-source software tools that can speed creation of online software, as well as products from Microsoft (MSFT) and Adobe Systems (ADBE) that make Web site creation a breeze.
Sun announced two upcoming Java software products—JavaFX Script for writing interactive Web sites and JavaFX Mobile for running software on mobile phones—designed to persuade the world's 6 million Java developers to use the technology to link older Java systems with newer software. "What's happening on the Internet is all these systems are being connected to one another," Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz said at the JavaOne conference in San Francisco May 8. "We have to have coherence."
Open Playing Field
Sun introduced Java in 1995, and demand for the programming language and associated software for PCs, servers, and handheld computers quickly zoomed because of the ease and speed with which developers could use it to create new products. But a series of market missteps and changing tech trends have limited Sun's ability to capitalize on Java. IBM (IBM) and others became large suppliers of Java software for servers and PCs. Although 1.8 billion cellular phones run Java to power simple applications like games and address books, Sun only collects a small royalty on each one.
What's more, the popularity of Linux and other software that's published in the open has diminished developers' interest in Java. Sun is addressing that tension by releasing all of its Java technology under the same open-source license as Linux, a move completed May 8 (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/30/07, "Sun Mulls Deeper Open-Source Dive").
At the same time, Java's influence on the Web has slipped. Adobe's Flash software has become the de facto standard for creating sites with highly responsive user interfaces and embedded video clips. Microsoft in April announced a similar set of tools called Silverlight (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/16/07, "Microsoft Aims to Outshine Adobe's Flash"). Developers have also turned to the open-source tools known as Ajax and the Ruby on Rails development language as faster alternatives to Java (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/13/05, "Java? It's So Nineties"). "If you're starting a greenfield Web project now, it's hard to beat Ruby on Rails," says Dan Kohn, chief operating officer for the Linux Foundation, a trade group.
JavaFX Script is supposed to address some of those shortcomings by enabling Java developers to write software faster and run it more quickly over the Web. "Java has historically been too hard," said Sun's Schwartz.
But the market for development tools has changed over the past decade, says Dana Gardner, principal analyst at technology consulting company Interarbor Solutions. Instead of just languages and tools, developers now want technologies they can use to combine services on the Web—like those made available by Google (GOOG) that help companies use mapping and calendar software on their own sites, or the ways Amazon.com (AMZN) provides access to its computing and storage capacity.
Sun could do the same by publishing the so-called application program interfaces to its OpenOffice productivity suite or hosting storage for customers, but that would put it at risk of competing with customers, says Gardner. "If they really want developers to love Sun and Java, they have to give them access to services," he says. "But that puts them in a bit of a quandary, because then they'd compete with Google, Yahoo! (YHOO), and Amazon, who they need to sell servers to."
At the Cellular Level
Sun also faces a tough environment in mobile-phone software. Handset vendors use Java for games and other simple applications on phones. But the most lucrative mobile software involves communication with e-mail systems and other remote software. "You wouldn't use Java for that," says Bill Hughes, principal analyst at In-Stat.
JavaFX Mobile is based largely on technology Sun acquired Apr. 12 from SavaJe Technologies, which had developed a mobile-phone operating system that combined elements of Linux and Java. The software will target cell-phone makers in developing countries, and devices using it could appear in 2008. "That's a reasonable way for them to move up the food chain," says Hughes. But "it's got some solid competition"—chiefly from Qualcomm's (QCOM) Brew software. Also crowding the cell-phone operating system field are Microsoft, European developer Symbian, Research In Motion (RIMM), and soon, Apple (AAPL).
During a press conference at JavaOne, Schwartz maintained Sun could replicate Java's '90s ubiquity in the new Web era, and wouldn't alter its marketing. "Java everywhere," he said. "It's the same message, and you're going to hear it for the next decade." Whether you'll be hearing a new message on Java-related sales, though, is the bigger question.