Sun once again is trying to convince us that Java belongs on the desktop. At this week's Network Computing conference, we are once again treated to the delightful wit and wisdom of Scott McNealy poking fun at our industry and making a case for getting rid of the rat's nest of code called Windows that most of us continue to use. http://wwws.sun.com/software/javadesktopsystem/
I have only one piece of advice for Scott: If you really want an alternative to Windows, buy a Mac. It runs Unix just fine, has a great and stable graphical desktop environment that for the most part is Redmond-free, and isn't infected every 10 minutes when some kid in eastern Europe figures out the latest vulnerability in RPC.
But, silly rabbit, Java is for servers, not for desktops. J2EE is a fine application development platform, and that is where Sun rightly should be placing its dollars, coders and talents. Unseating .Net makes a lot more sense and has a chance of success. Sun's announcement of Rave is exactly the right idea of making life easier, faster and more secure to develop Java-based apps.
Sun says that its desktop Java, which will be available by year's end, is a better mousetrap. "Unlike other desktops that are often expensive and bloated with unnecessary features, the Java Desktop System is an affordable, comprehensive, easy-to-use and secure desktop solution." That is true, but misses the point. Windows is here to stay, for better or worse, for making Bill richer and us poorer while fighting all of its vulnerabilities and complexities.
I became completely turned off to Java on the desktop when I saw Scott talk several years ago about how he runs his own Java desktop at work on his own thin-client desktop. As he is driving to the office, he calls his loyal assistant, already at work, and tells her to boot his machine. Since it takes about 20 minutes to load all that code that isn't bloating up the actual machine from the server, Scott is just trying to be more efficient about using his day. Most of us don't have the time to wait, nor such willing assistants who can come in ahead of us. Not to mention that we don't want to stuff megabytes of apps over our network infrastructure first thing in the morning. Buy a Mac, Scott. It is affordable, secure and easy to use.
The Java desktop doesn't have to run over the network, but that is Scott's vision, and it is a flawed one. Look at all the stuff that you have to get working with your current suite of applications: Office (Sun has its own MS-compatible Star Office suite, which does a pretty good job of staying close to last year's version of what Bill's boys cook up.), Instant Messaging, reading Adobe Acrobat files, playing Real multimedia files and, of course, Web browsing and e-mail. That is a lot of stuff to keep current with the Windows family. Just buy a Mac, Scott.
That isn't to say the Mac is perfect, either. Many times, my Web-based apps just don't run on my Mac browsers, and typically it is because someone has decided to pick the Windows-only version of Java or Active X that precludes any Mac users. Too bad. Maybe if Scott and Bill could kiss and make up over desktop Java we would have better Mac-based apps. Maybe the two companies can collaborate on a lot more things: after all, with Sun servers and Mac clients, we could get a pretty good thing going here. But that is for another column.
No, we are stuck with Windows for the time being, and Microsoft knows it. Java on the desktop is an idea that has come and gone. Stick to servers, Scott, and move front and center to fight that battle. Better yet, buy Apple.
I received several comments on this essay and want to correct a few inaccuracies. First off, the Desktop Java that Sun is pushing now is based on Linux, Gnome and other open source standards and has little to do with Java per se. The thin client that Scott demonstrated years ago has nothing to do with the current thin client product, called the SunRay. (Here is a good review from Newsforge that is worth reading.)
Nevertheless, Sun's branding strategy leaves a lot to be desired and will only serve to confuse people going forward. And I still think that Macs talking to Linux servers makes a lot of sense, if only Apple and Sun could get out of their own ways long enough.
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