June 02, 2009

JavaONE: Bright Future or Riding off into the Sunset?

Today, I set my alarm early, 6:00 AM early. The reason was to catch Caltrain #313 @ 6:57 AM so I can make it Moscone Center in time for Sun Microsystems’ keynote at JavaONE. As I made my way to the train station, I pondered what I was going to see and hear at JavaONE – an event that is very long in tooth, at least in Internet years.

Today’s keynote was spun around what 14 years has brought, and there has been plenty of good brought by Java. In 1996, who realistically could believe that literally billions of remote access devices would have Java as an embedded capability? Perhaps a few die-hard believers would have, but the scale that Java has achieved since its launch is beyond remarkable. Today we witnessed mobile phones, Blue Ray players, televisions, web sites, and CPUs, but precious little mention of “computers” except when seeing development tools. This morning’s guests included eBay, Research in Motion, Sony, Verizon, Intel, and Jagex (of Runescape fame). As shocking as this would be from a 1996 perspective, in 2009, it is testimony to what Java has accomplished.

The notion of communities of consumers was prevalent throughout, whether they were Java developers, eBay buyers and sellers, Blackberry users, or Blue-Ray viewers at home (conveniently networked with numerous others through their PS3). While an obvious extension of the notion of Networked Computing, I wonder just how far the idea of automatic community extends to discrete users who just happen to be doing to the same task at a given time.

Nevertheless, the potential of associating users into communities, even if they are of only short duration (such as the audience for this morning’s keynote) for commercial benefit is considerable. With each association, there is a data point, with each data point there needs to be a data repository, and for each demand for a data repository, there is a database vendor standing in the hall. Perhaps this relationship between consumers and Java devices is the ultimate reason why the Redwood Shores Company would want to purchase the creator of all things Java.

Java and I have a love hate relationship that spans decades. I have always loved the idealism, the technical achievement, and its role as the first technology that really made the Internet “fun.” However, I have always hated the arrogance, early attempts at exercising proprietary behavior through an ill-fated ISO standardization scheme, and Java’s positioning as a replacement for underlying operating systems and hence their purveyors.

Probably what I found most remarkable was the tone of Java today; very consumer friendly. Yet Larry Ellison seemingly turned that positioning on its head during the last 15 minutes of the keynote. The message during the first 75 minutes was perhaps best summed up by a JavaFX TV architect who stated that Java was all about delivering content to the user’s “favorite screen in their life." It was all about consumers, info consumption, and developers seeking to convert labors of love into revenue streams.

Later on, when Oracle’s fearless leader joined Scott McNealy and James Gosling on stage, Java’s message seemed to revert to its early days. Larry boasted of Oracle’s 100% Java middleware stack, and soon to be 100% Java based applications. All of this is impressive to be sure, but it also sounds very much like traditional computing as manifest through networks seeking to solve business problems, not a consumer empowerment experience. For those seated in the audience, the question was simple, “which of these is the Java vision in a post-Oracle merger universe?”

Although Oracle through Ellison made many statements about the value of Java, it is hard to imagine that the attendees did not have some degree of worry introduced. There were at best only non-committal statements about the future of JavaONE. It will prove interesting to see just how Oracle ultimately chooses to leverage its new Java assets. Having billions of enabled devices implies untold numbers of potential database transactions, all of which surely would cause a smile to appear across Oracle’s collective brow. The collective $4 - $5 billion in potential R&D spending bandied around by McNealy and Ellison is impressive, and such an investment could help take Java to the next level.

However, just how interested is a business data and applications provider in driving consumer focused application sales through a newly announced Java store? How much desire is there to continue to push the developer communities in an open source paradigm? Does Oracle want all of what Java has become or will it be quite content to cherry pick the desired morsels, and simply wither away the remainder? Only time will tell.

It is clear that even if there is another JavaONE in the future, 2009 will likely be known as the last “real” JavaONE. Overall, the exhibition floor seemed subdued, and there was a subtle theme throughout Sun’s keynote message: “Java is really big, so big; we have to keep telling you it’s big.” Seeing McNealy in action again on stage brought fond memories, but it also reminded me that these are memories, and that Sun and much of its unique history will soon mount their horses to begin riding off into the sunset. One can only hope that all of the good aspects of Java will endure through its new owner, and that the communities that have arisen around it are not inadvertently shown the pasture as well.

Change is inevitable, and technology has the inherent ability to speed up the rate of change. Java, as was Sun and the Internet, was clearly a game changer in the grand scheme of all things IT. Embracing change, as difficult as it is, leads to opportunity. Judging by what was shown today and the words spoken, change is in the air. The question is, “how will the marketplace embrace the change in motion?” Will developers be further empowered in a post Oracle-Sun universe, or will they experience seismic change in their platform underpinnings? Again, only time will time. Speaking of time, I had better head back to the Caltrain station for the ride home.

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