Culture Wars

Culture Wars

Culture Wars

Sept. 27 1997 3:30 AM

Culture Wars

Behind the Java hype is a struggle for computer-world hegemony.

"The only freight train that counts these days," says former Reaganaut and current cyberguru George Gilder, "is the Internet with Java." Java, of course, is the computer-programming language created by Sun Microsystems. It promises to revolutionize personal computing, making obsolete the proprietary-software-running desktop and shifting the center of gravity in the computer world toward the network, the largest part of which is the World Wide Web. Heady claims indeed. (What exactly is Java? Click here to find out.) And yet, if Java were called Oak--its original name--it's a safe bet this column would never have been written.

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That's because the history of Java since its introduction in May of 1995 is fundamentally one of cultural conflict, in which symbols and rhetoric have played as important a role as underlying technological differences. The conflict is between Java's supporters--most notably Gilder, Sun CEO Scott McNealy, and Oracle CEO Larry Ellison--on the one hand and ... well, Microsoft on the other. As McNealy puts it, in typically blunt terms, "There's two camps, those in Redmond, who live on the Death Star, and the rest of us, the rebel forces." And in this struggle, Java is the rebels' supposed ace in the hole, the "tsunami that will sweep through the economy," in Gilder's words, changing the landscape forever and probably putting Slateout of business.

Now McNealy and Gilder certainly think that Java is, in fact, a technological transformation so important that those who do not adapt will be left in the dust. But the intensity of Sun's evangelical effort testifies to the overwhelming importance of marketing and name recognition in today's economy. It's hard to know whether Java--which in theory can run on any platform--really is superior to proprietary systems like Windows. But even if it is, the history of technology is littered with superior products that never attained mass appeal. Technology does not, in that sense, speak for itself. If it did, Sun could have simply launched Java and waited for the inevitable to occur. Whether someone announces a tidal wave is coming, after all, is irrelevant to the wave's arrival. It crashes on the beach regardless. What we see with Java, though, is that in the business world a tidal wave can only exist if someone announces that it's coming.

Sun has already been remarkably successful in making Java into a brand name. Oddly, though, where Coke and Pepsi fight for consumers, at the moment the real struggle over Java is for the hearts and minds of developers. In that sense, instead of focusing on the demand for Java, Sun is emphasizing its supply. It's the "build it, and they will come" approach to business.

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O f course, since Sun's revenue from Java comes from licensing fees--to, among other companies, Microsoft--software developers are its customers. But there's a more important reason for the emphasis on getting people to program with Java, namely that it's impossible to get computer users to abandon their current operating systems if they don't think the alternative will be around five years from now. Apple has run into this problem in recent years, as Mac users have defected to Windows because fewer and fewer companies are writing Mac-compatible versions of their programs. The quickest way to assure users that your alternative is viable is to show them the plethora of programs being written for it (or, in the case of Java, in it). In that sense, you do have to build it before they will come.

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This helps explain, for example, why McNealy so often cites the 400,000 programmers (including 2,500 IBMers) who are programming in Java. It also helps explain why the Wall Street Journal's report that most of the 10 start-up companies funded by Doerr's Java Fund are writing their software in languages other than Java stung so much, as did Corel's abandonment of its plan to make its entire Office suite of programs Java-compatible. You never hear about how many people are actually downloading Java applets. You only hear about how many companies are making them. (For the Microsoft view of this marketing strategy, click.)

There are a few things to keep in mind about Sun's strategy for Java with regard to the consumer market. The first, obviously, is that creating a critical mass of developers turning out programs that work and that people want is the crucial task. The second thing is that Sun makes, relatively speaking, a minuscule amount of money from Java licensing. To be sure, it's almost all pure profit, but in relation to the company's workstation and server business, the revenue is nearly irrelevant. What's most relevant for Sun is the role Java may play in eroding the desktop market and the proprietary authority of Windows and Windows NT. Insofar as Java makes "the network is the computer" seem true, it helps Sun.

Finally, it's possible to see Sun's approach to Java as an embodiment of what's called Joy's Law, after Sun co-founder Bill Joy. "Let's be truthful," Joy said. "Most of the bright people don't work for you--no matter who you are. You need a strategy that allows for innovation occurring elsewhere." Accordingly, the first Sun workstations were assembled from off-the-shelf components. And while the company's most important product of the late 1980s, the SPARCstation, featured a high-speed processor of Sun's own devising, throughout its history Sun has done an impressive job of keeping pace with technological change by refusing to remain locked into one vision of the future. Sun's genius as a company, in fact, has always been its adaptability. And it has done best when it has remained committed to open standards.

Now, one could argue that by insisting on controlling the standards for Java, Sun is violating Joy's Law. A recent letter that Microsoft and Intel wrote asking the company to give up that control to an international body suggested as much. But Sun has made Java's specs and the source code freely available to developers, in the hope that a hundred flowers will bloom. As Joy counseled, if Java works, it won't be because of Sun. It'll be because of what happens everywhere else.

What will happen everywhere else, though, is still uncertain. Programmers do seem to find it easier to work in Java than in C++, and certainly the prospect of being able to download a spreadsheet document and read it without having to download the spreadsheet program is enticing. But Java programs are still considerably slower than those written for a particular operating system, just as amphibious creatures are not as good on land as mammals or as good in water as fish. And even the promise of universal compatibility has not been completely realized.

That, of course, is precisely why Java has become such fertile ground for cyberevangelism. To be sure, George Gilder needs no excuse to write block-that-metaphor prose like this: "[Java] opens doors and shatters Windows. It builds market cap as if by magic. It raises the sun and illumines the road ahead to a new computer architecture. Give poor Bill a break." But the really interesting thing about Java is that Gilder isn't the only one using this kind of language. Everyone speaks as if the stakes are monumental. Certainly, with the hype surrounding Windows 95, and with the introduction of the Mac in 1984, the relationship between cultural hegemony and business success was hinted at. But with Java, Sun seems to be staking everything on that relationship. If you want to know where the real culture wars are, forget the academy and think Silicon Valley and Redmond.

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