Client-side Java Gets Jolt From Sun

BOSTON (06/14/2000) - Sun Microsystems Inc. sought to revive interest in client-side Java last week, unveiling a product called WebStart that will let users download a Java application and the necessary runtime environment with one click in their browsers. The application will be stored in a cache on their PCs, so they will need to download it just once.

That might help companies such as Food Services of America. It's testing a Java application that will let restaurants place orders over the Internet. "It would have been something to consider," said Roy Harper, lead software engineer at the Seattle-based food supplier.

Despite all the attention given to server-side Java at last week's JavaOne Conference here, attendees such as Harper showed that Java is still alive and kicking on client machines -- at least when the conditions are right.

Food Services of America tried an HTML interface for the application, but company developers decided that the browser-based approach wouldn't cut it for big orders. "Imagine trying to order 100 books from and the session it would take to do that," Harper said.

His team turned to a full-blown Java application to give users a more flexible way to place orders without having to worry about their desktop operating systems, since Java can run anywhere.

"The mail traffic on (Java's) Swing (graphical user interface classes) is huge, so somebody's writing desktop apps in Java," said Sun Microsystems Inc. Fellow James Gosling, the creator of the 5-year-old programming language.

Bill Conroy, a senior vice president in software engineering at Bank of America Corp. in Chicago, said his company can use client-side Java for its internal trading systems because "we can control the configuration on the machines" and ensure that those PCs have virtual machines that are finely tuned to run the Java code.

But for any applications going outside the company's firewalls, programmers use server-based Java components to generate HTML because the bank's financial customers "aren't going to be happy if I'm reconfiguring their Java virtual machine," said Conroy.

Some companies face delivery issues even with an internal user base. For instance, Moline, Ill.-based Deere & Co.'s commercial and consumer equipment division is delivering a Web-based sales and marketing report application to employees in the field.

But it's sticking with thin HTML-based clients so it doesn't have to worry about installing or updating software on remote machines or the "overhead of downloading applications or (browser-based) applets," said Doug Taylor, team leader on the division's WebWorks team.

Slow performance and uneven Java support in browsers from Microsoft Corp. and Netscape Communications Corp. drove developers at many companies to shun Java applets, which often frustrated users waiting for the downloads.

Many programmers eventually turned to newer server-based technologies, such as servlets and Java Server Pages, to help generate the HTML that gets delivered to browsers.

Several JavaOne attendees said they plan to stick with the latter approach, particularly when delivering Web content to a user base they don't know or can't control.

"Some of our clients won't even accept Java applets," said an information technology architect at a prominent national bank. "They have just as sophisticated a firewall setup as we do."