Client side Java, Take Two

October 23rd, 2008 by Ivo

Back in the late nineties, when many websites still looked like this, the people at Sun had a vision that the web could be so much more than static HTML. They created the concept of Java Applets that could be placed on webpages to make them richer and do stuff that HTML just couldn't. Like adding animated menus and hideous buttons.

This was quite the cool thing to have at the time, but there were a few fundamental problems. One: it was horribly slow. Nobody really cared because at 28K8 modem speed on a 486, anything was slow, so the few extra seconds it took to load the Java stuff was accepted, at least for a while. But the second problem was that it was quite unstable. More often than not, it would crash your browser. (There's actually about a 1 in 4 chance that the above link still crashed your browser today, 10 years later; the significant improvement is that Firefox will have remembered what page it crashed on and will let you re-experience the crash upon restart. Twice the fun.)

So with most Java developers not getting beyond the 'L33T, I HAZ CREATED A BUTTON!!' stage and HTML, CSS and JavaScript gradually becoming rich enough to create hideous buttons without Java Applets, the technique more or less died. (Well, Java itself didn't; it firmly grasped on to the enterprise software market because the former button developers had kids to feed.)

We then had a few years of plain HTML/CSS/JavaScript happiness with the occasional Flash animation, when suddenly the big guys thought it was time to enrich the web again. Not with Java of course, which people still associated with fancy buttons and crashing browsers, but with new shiny technologies like Silverlight and Flex. (Sure, both Microsoft and Adobe are in favor of open standards as long as they can each have their own standard).

The concept is very much the same, both Flex and Silverlight allow you to create buttons! But this time, we use a Three Letter Acronym, because *THAT* was what Java failed, the lack of a proper Three Letter Acronym!

We call this modern variant of user interface richness: RIA, for Rich Internet Application (maybe it was supposed to stand for 'Rather Implemented an Applet' though). Like in the past, the idea is to do stuff in the browser that HTML won't let you.

Sun, who years ago created the RIA avant la lettre with their Java applets, must have watched this trend in amazement. And now that RIA's are in the early adopter stage and have enough momentum to become mainstream, it's time for them to give it another try. They are relaunching the applet idea with what they call 'JavaFX' (come on, that name just sounds like 'fancy button' all over again). Details on this can be read in this article on TechCrunch.

Interesting times are ahead. With Google Chrome possibly igniting the Third Browser War, we'll also see the RIA wars, where JavaFX, Silverlight and Flex will battle to become the dominant technology to create rich internet applications. One potential outcome: they all fail and the outcome is an improved, richer version of HTML and plain old JavaScript. Another potential outcome: they will all find their niche and we'll get incredibly cool apps. Back in the days of the Applet, the web was relatively immature. We weren't ready for real web applications. Maybe that is why Java Applets didn't survive the Button stage.

This time around however, more and more applications are webbased, so there's quite a big chance that this time, RIA technologies will catch on and outgrow their Button stages and give us some really compelling browser experience.

Time will tell. Let's look back at this in another 10 years or so.

2 Responses to “Client side Java, Take Two”

  1. October 24, 2008 at 4:15 pm, Web 2.0 Announcer said:

    Client side Java, Take Two…

    [...]Back in the late nineties, when many websites still looked like this, the people at Sun had a vision that the web could be so much more than static HTML. They created the concept of Java Applets that could be placed on webpages to make them richer…

  2. October 28, 2008 at 1:11 pm, Web-Impress said:

    Well, cute, but disputable