Java is no longer young but retains relevance

Java Platform Group chief Georges Saab says the platform Maybe turning 25 (or even 30) but remains vibrant.

There has been some talk of Java becoming 25 years old but at the end of this year Java will turn 30 if we go back to the earliest roots of the project developed by a crack team of developers at Sun Microsystems starting in 1990. Appropriately enough for a technology phenomenon that has morphed so much over the years, it started out as a platform imagined for smart appliances and has seen many names and changes in direction since. Any history of Java would need to reference codenames including Stealth, Green, Oak and even the unwieldy C++ ++ which points to its founding as an attempt to be unshackled from conventional developer environments.

Java first rose to prominence as a portable developer environment with the famous tagline promise of Write Once, Run Anywhere, pitched as a way to crank out code that would run on multiple platforms rather than locking devs into writing bespoke code for every operating system. By the mid 1990s, when the Java name first started being used, it was synonymous with early web browsers but over time, Java became hugely impactful on the server side and today it remains a popular environment to solve practical computing challenges where system must talk unto system.

When Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2009 there was consternation in the Java community, but Java is still pervasive in modern compute environments: Oracle cites CERN, NASA, Twitter, Netflix and Minecraft use cases as examples of its elasticity. To catch up with where Java stands today, I spoke to Georges Saab, VP Java Platform Group at Oracle and Chair of the OpenJDK Governing Board, who has had a near quarter-century entanglement with the technology.

Java made names of James Gosling, Bill Joy and others, giving them the sort of profiles rare in the developer community. Saab says he started life with Java in 1996 when it was part of Sun's JavaSoft unit and "it was still pretty early days, still fledgling". A call alerted him to the fact that a team was "working on this new language ... led by "the great and the good"".

He says that looking back the thread running through it has been the flexibility that makes it pop up everywhere from mission-critical systems and Wall Street to the Internet of Things and edge computing.

"One of the things it has shown over the years is its versatility," Saab says. "[Back in the mid-1990s] the web was a very static place… all static HTML pages. People wanted dynamic content [and Java enabled] doing things on the client side for web pages that were more than sitting there." Later, it transformed web servers that were otherwise "cumbersome" to deal, with. Suddenly, "you didn't have to be a rock star programmer to make it productive".

Today, Saab notes the multi-cloud, hybrid IT world is very fragmented in a different way to the days when the Wintel duopoly prevailed, making that fabled flexibility more important than ever.

"One of the amazing things is its always been for all different types of workloads: the majority of SIM cards, cloud, NASA Mars rovers…"

Saab doesn't flinch when I suggest that Oracle would have been the choice of few Java fans to take over control 11 years ago.

"There were some people who wondered what sort of steward Oracle would be but 10 years on Oracle has kept the spirit of Java technology going and we're also putting in investment ourselves," he argues.

"Stewardship is about ensuring that you're eating your own dogfood but also fostering the ecosystem and pretty much everything we do maps to that. Oracle has doubled down on Java and there's even more openness than before."

Today, Oracle is easily Java's biggest code contributor representing but Saab also points to Red Hat, SAP, Twitter, Google, Alibaba, ARM and Intel as camp supporters.

One way that Java has changed has been a move to a faster cadence with six-monthly release schedules. That gets rid of what Saab calls the "marbles behind basketballs" problem where challenges large and small are given equal prominence.

"A regular cadence makes it much easier to plan and reduces the drama of people competing," he adds. It enables the Java movement to be more dynamic and reduces the learning curve associated with blockbuster releases.

That scheduling change is also emblematic of a Java ecosystem that, even as it approaches veteran status, continues to evolve and be practically useful to developers all over the world. Java is likely to persist anywhere mission-critical environments need to be supported but also, Saab says, in startups needing to scale up and build rock-solid software. Java might be aging but it's still evolving.