Can the Java Plug-in compete?


M. Warble

Why hasn't Java become the dominant technology in RIA development?
I'm not the first person to ask this question, nor will I be the last. It is
unbelievable to me that the company that invented the RIA over a decade ago
has made little or no progress in this field and presents absolutely no
challenge to inferior technologies that came later. JavaScript was named
"Java" script deceptively to give it better visibility in the marketplace,
but given its dominance in the RIA market, you'd never believe it.

I have been developing software for over 25 years now with the majority of
my experience in C++ development and object-oriented analysis and design.
Wanting to move into the web market, I started doing RIA development a few
years ago. I was horrified by the development options available to me and
the seemingly infinite amount of hoops I had to jump through to get even the
simplest application functionality implemented and working correctly. I had
been using Java to do backend work and had really come to like it. To me,
the ideal situation would be to use Java to do the client-side work as well
as the server-side work. Not only would I be using a real OO programming
language, I'd also be using a single technology across the board. The
problem was that there really was no nice client-side Java solution
available. Swing was just too cumbersome and inflexible and other products
had similar drawbacks. What I really wanted was a client-side solution that
was as easy to use and just as flexible as HTML/CSS for building a UI, but
provided the dynamic and robust programming features of Java. So I quit my
full-time job about 18 months ago and started designing a Java-based RIA
product called the Galileo RIA Framework (

One of the many frustrations that I had experienced working with JavaScript
was the problem of inconsistent appearance and behavior on different
browsers; therefore, when I started designing Galileo one of its primary
requirements was that it be able to run on all major browsers on all major
platforms and produce a consistent looking UI. Knowing the history of the
Java Plug-in, I wasn't sure if it would meet this requirement. Much to my
relief, it turned out that the latest Java plug-in (1.5 at the time) worked
fine with all the latest and greatest browsers (IE, Firefox, Netscape,
Opera, Safari, and Camino) on all of my test machines which included Windows
XP and Vista, Mac OS-X, and a few Linux distros. This was great. I figured
now all I had to do was focus on developing the actual UI framework and I
would have the product I had been longing for and a product that the Java
community would be excited about.

I recently released Galileo as a Beta and while many developers who have
looked at the product have admitted that it is an impressive product and
that they'd like it to gain much success, they are reluctant to use it
because it depends on the Java Plug-in. This has been a major disappointment
to say the least. I knew that applets had developed a stigma over the years,
but I didn't realize how pronounced the distaste for the plug-in had become.
The negativity and skepticism within the Java community itself is so
overwhelming that any hope for wide acceptance of the plug-in seems
impossible. The funny thing is that all the developers I have talked with
would like the plug-in to become widely accepted, but in order for it to
become widely accepted, it would have to be used, however, most website
developers are hesitant to use it, because, well, it's not widely accepted.

I want to change this. Not only because the success of my product depends on
it, but because I would like more job opportunities to be available to me as
a Java programmer as the RIA market continues to grow.

Why did the Java Plug-in fail in the first place?
My guess is that there were several major reasons for the failure of the
Java Plug-in. One, applets and the plug-in were introduced at a time when
most users were limited to dial-up access to the internet. Downloading the
plug-in and the applets that used it took too long for a normal user's
patience. Two, a Swing UI compared to an HTML website designed by a graphics
artist looked terrible. Three, platform and browser compatibility may have
been an issue also, but not being involved in Java development back then, I
don't know if that was an issue or not. Four, it has been said that
installation of the Plug-in was not straightforward and could have been
difficult for non-developers. Five, the web was still pretty new itself. The
concept of the RIA didn't exist; therefore, there wasn't any pressure for
websites to be anymore than straight HTML. Adding technology that
complicated implementation, limited potential visitors, and looked bad, just
didn't make any sense.

Can the Java Plug-in compete now?
I'm optimistic it can for several reasons. One, according to the latest
statistics I've read, 86% of U.S. internet users now use broadband. Download
times for JAR files and other resources have become negligible. Two, Sun has
finally decided to rewrite the plug-in making it easier to detect, download,
install, and upgrade. Also most major browsers will prompt the user in a
standard way to install the plug-in if a page that requires it is loaded.
Three, new operating systems / machines are coming with the Java plug-in
already installed. I know both my Windows Vista machines from Dell did, my
Mini-Mac from Apple did, and several distros of Linux install the plug-in
when the OS is installed. Four, installing a plug-in just isn't a big deal
for users anymore. According to a June 2008 survey 99% of internet enabled
desktops have already installed the Flash plug-in and 85% have Java
installed. Five, standard HTML websites are no longer the standard. To be
competitive, websites will have to continue to evolve with RIAs being the
latest evolutionary step. Where standard HTML sites with bits and pieces of
JavaScript could be developed by graphic artists and other non-developer
types, RIAs, because of the complicated implementations, require software
developers. Where the major driving force in the web development market used
to be graphics artists and non-developer types, as the RIA market grows
software developers, many of which are Java developers, will become a
greater driving force. This opens up more opportunities for Java. And six,
with a framework like Galileo which allows easily customizable UI's that can
look as good as any HTML/CSS based UI, aesthetics are no longer an issue for
Java UI's.

I was discussing this issue with Marty Hall of this
week and here's what he had to say:

I would love it if a Java-based solution gained some traction in the RIA
world. I spend a lot of time doing Ajax training, and right now, Ajax is
tremendously complicated for developers. Developers have to learn xhtml,
XML, JSON, JavaScript, Prototype, 37 other JavaScript libraries, and a
server-side technology (servlets/JSP, PHP, ROR, or whatever). Even with
integrated technologies like GWT or JSON-RPC, there are still an awfully lot
of underlying technologies for a developer to master, and the interface is
still limited by what current browsers can support."

I really hope your framework catches on. It would be a good thing. You could
build apps that were so much better if you had a real programming language
and a single underlying technology.

The more compelling apps out there that get people to install Java in their
browsers the better. And the more powerful but simplified GUI frameworks
like yours, the better.
I believe a window of opportunity has opened to give the Java Plug-in a rare
second chance. It appears that Sun believes this too, since they have taken
the initiative to redesign the plug-in and to create JavaFx. However, with
no disrespect to Sun, if Java developers expect the plug-in to succeed due
to Sun's efforts alone, I think they are sadly mistaken. In order for the
plug-in to succeed, a concerted effort by the Java community will be
necessary. For this reason I have created The main
initiative of this effort will be to pool developer resources to create RIAs
that utilize the Java plug-in and appeal to a broad audience by coming up
with new ideas for websites, copying successful website ideas and making
them better, and/or trying to forge strategic partnerships with existing
websites that already have a substantial user base who are looking to
upgrade to RIA technology. The second initiative will be to provide the
appropriate resources to help other developers interested in Java RIA
development. I, of course, will be pushing Galileo, but will welcome the use
of any product that promotes the use of the Java plug-in.

There will no doubt be skeptics in the Java community who say this is a
fool's errand. But for those like me who are not content sitting on the
sidelines waiting for others to decide their fate, I say join me and help me
in my effort to make Java, if not the dominating, at least a viable option
for RIA development. Personally I'd like to have an impact that creates the
general opinion that any machine connected to the internet that isn't
equipped with the Java plug-in is an inconvenience to the user. If a machine
has a modern browser there's no reason for it not to have the plug-in.

I'm interested in any and all opinions. If you are interested in becoming a
part of this effort, please drop me an email.

M. Warble
(e-mail address removed)


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