A Celebration of Lady Java, a Coding Language to Rule Them All
Phones, laptops, tablets, even cars. They’re all so tightly connected to that ever-growing thing called the cloud. Today, we take that for granted. But just a decade ago, our phones weren’t that smart. We still kept our personal data on largely unconnected handhelds known as PDAs. And the Internet of Things was nothing more than marketing speak.
Then came Java.
Created by a small team of engineers at tech giant Sun Microsystems, Java was one software architecture to rule them all, something that would let developers weave all of our devices—from handhelds to TV set-tops—into one powerful network of information. It was software that anyone could load on any machine, letting them build devices that could all speak the same language. All devices would run the same “virtual machine,” and this would mean that all of them could run the same apps and services.
“It’s everywhere you look—and yet invisible,” says a black-robed bald guy in a Sun video that promoted the Java platform in the mid-2000s (see above). “One network expanding exponentially. One architecture—Java—connecting everyone to everything.”
As far back as the mid-90s, those Sun engineers—led by a coder named James Gosling—aimed to create software that would power the next generation of computers and other consumer gadgets. After 18 months of work, the team came up with a handheld device that let users control their TV sets—not unlike Apple TV or Chromecast. It even offered a cute virtual penguin-looking assistant named Duke who did your bidding. But the cable and TV industries weren’t ready for that yet, so the the team took the technology to the internet instead, where—thanks in part to the Netscape browser—it started to flourish.
By the mid aughts, the internet was moving elsewhere. Smart mobile devices—the very things the Java overlords had envisioned 15 years earlier—were actually starting to become a thing. And Java was running on many of them. That’s when Sun unloaded the black-robed bald guy, looking like a cross between some sort of shaman and a Neo from The Matrix.
He boasts that over 140,000 phones are joining the network every day. And in the coming years, he tells us, a phone would become more than just a gadget for talking and texting. It would help you handle everything from music and games to financial transactions. It would power the next social revolution. And it would run Java. “This is where it’s headed: mobile intelligence on the edge,” he says. “Soon, trillions of these will be lighting up the network like fireflies, broadcasting their whereabouts as they illuminate supply chains in realtime.”
And he was right—except for the Java bit.
Java enjoyed a pretty successful run on the web. But the “write once, run anywhere” thing didn’t really happen. Many desktops and laptops offered the Java virtual machine, but not all. And the number of software applications that ran atop the virtual machine never reached critical mass. The VM was also a bit of a security problem, and in 2010, Steve Jobs officially booted it from the Mac operating system. Cupertino would later malign it as malware, and the Java virtual machine didn’t exactly reinvent the mobile world. It took the iPhone to do that, and no, Jobs didn’t use Java on the iPhone.
But over the years, Java became an extremely popular way of building and running software that ran behind the scenes, on the hidden computer servers that power the internet and our corporate networks. It’s now the key tool used to build the sweeping systems that underpin everything from Google to Twitter, Square, and Linkedin. And most all of the apps running on Android devices are built with the Java programming language, though the phones run Google’s own version of the Java virtual machine—not the official Sun version that was supposed to blanket the world.
All told, Java is now one of the two most popular programming languages in the world. And it’s an indelible part of tech culture. The Duke mascot is still as adorable as ever, and the Java-themed videos still lurk on YouTube. There’s Lady Java, a leotard-wearing platinum blond that sings about the virtues of Java while gyrating on—of all things—a giant replica of the original Mac. In a spoof dubbed Javapocalypse, we get a glimpse of a frightening post-Java world where TV stations go offline and mobile app Eatagram stops working, subjecting humans to a boring life without food photos. Can you imagine? It would put an end to hipsterdom.
Then there’s a group of nerds rapping about coding hard in Java in their cubicles. It’s all so very nerd-chic. The rap video comes complete with floppy disks, Star Wars and Office Space references, an appearance by Duke, and a diss on C++. As a bonus, we’ve included it below for you to enjoy with all your Java homies.
Java didn’t drive the mobile revolution. But it took over the world in so many other ways.