Is Java Obsolete?

Sun’s programming language is great for linking corporate applications to the Internet. Trouble is, Web services promise to do the same thing.


from Business 2.0, April 2002 issue

At Ford Financial, the financial services arm of Ford Motor, Java is the glue that ties together the company’s disparate information systems. A Java-based application server from BEA connects IBM mainframes in Detroit with branch offices nationwide, where sales representatives use Web browsers to set up loans for customers. “Java has really proven itself,” says Marcy Klevorn, Ford Financial’s director of customer branch and dealer systems.

Java gets that kind of praise all the time, which is one reason it is far and away Sun Microsystems’s most widely used software product. According to Gartner Research, 82 percent of U.S. corporations use Java in some capacity. No wonder: Because it is designed to run on any computing platform, Java is well-suited for building links between corporate applications and Web-based front ends. The latest versions provide tools that make it even easier to link enterprise software systems.

The problem for Java is that Web services promise to do the same thing (see “What the H*ck Are Web Services?“). Web services are designed to standardize the way applications exchange information, so you can link them together without worrying about underlying hardware or programming languages. Your business partners are still using archaic Cobol programs? No problem. As long as their applications can exchange data using Web services standards, everyone can do business.

Sun argues that critical applications require integration at the level of the software’s inner logic — and that’s what Java is all about. Microsoft touts a more loosely coupled approach in which applications simply exchange data in agreed-upon formats. This can be slower, but it’s more closely aligned with how the Internet works. Web browsers, for instance, can be written in any language and run on any platform — all that matters is the data they exchange. “All we focus on is the protocol that flows over the wire,” says Charles Fitzgerald, general manager for .Net strategy at Microsoft.

Who’s right? Web services systems are still in development, and standards are still evolving. For the near term, the best way to ensure that different applications work together is to build them all in a common language. That often means using Java. “You shouldn’t expect any decline in Java popularity” during the next five years, says Gartner VP and research director Joseph Feiman.

But holding the fort isn’t the same as winning the war. In the long run, Java is likely to be reduced to a niche player — strong in the application server market but not elsewhere. As Web services standards mature, there will be less and less reason for companies to standardize on a single language or platform. That’s good news for IT managers. But it may spell trouble for Sun Microsystems.

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Is Java Obsolete?