Rethinking the business case for Java

The evolving platform fitscape affects strategic decisions

In early 2000, JavaWorld published a two-part series I wrote entitled "The Business Case for Java: A Primer for Geeks," in which I listed the then distinguishing characteristics of both the competitive environment and the Java platform. Such characteristics were germane to a discussion of the strategic merits of adopting Java.

The stated thrust of the series was to provide talking points (and even a link to a PowerPoint presentation) that programmers could use to convince their (presumably) technology-challenged managers to make the switch to the Java. This article represents a reflection upon and a rethinking of the thoughts proffered in that series.

Goads

There were five characteristics (let's call them "goads") that the series claimed would permeate managerial decisions at the time. Despite a litany of changes, the ensuing five years have not substantially modified that list:

  • Customers rule: Products and services must be personalized
  • Competition intensifies: Trade is global
  • Change accelerates: Moore's Law plus Guilder's Law equals exponential change
  • Internet time: Ideas propagate at the speed of light
  • Joy's Law: Innovation happens elsewhere

These goads give rise to three "hygienic imperatives for the modern enterprise"—must-haves to compete, per Dr. Mike Hammer:

  • Value time divided by elapsed time approaches zero: All activities must add value
  • 6 Sigma Quality: Firms must provide virtually flawless quality
  • ETDBW (Easy to do business with): Customers will not tolerate firms that make it difficult purchase, pay, or partner

Clearly, all the above are still applicable when it comes to strategic business implications. We might add "highly secure transactions" as a goad and perhaps one day as an hygienic imperative, in light of the fall-out of September 11, 2001 on the global (especially U.S.) commercial zeitgeist. We might just as easily add "highly transparent transactions" in the wake of the collapse of Enron and WorldCom and the advent of Sarbanes-Oxley on the corporate behavioral norm. The extent to which these two goads are in conflict provides for an interesting early 21st century dilemma—but merchants and markets despise uncertainty, so commercially speaking, neither conspiracy nor corruption will long be tolerated.

The world changed on that one dark day in 2001, no doubt; but it also remained the same, and, to a great degree, our five-year-old goads remain intact. Alas, something that has changed dramatically since the aforementioned series was printed is the state of industries as a function of those goads. This reexamination of the Java platform must acknowledge that fact.

Fitscapes

I had the temerity to make up a word once: fitscape. In fact, I even used the word in the title of a book I wrote on the subject. Citing that work:

"From a Darwinian perspective, a complex adaptive system harboring autonomous agents competing for resources can be called a "fitness landscape." As these agents [evolve and] become more fit for the landscape over successive generations, the landscape itself is modified in the process. I use the term "fitscape" to refer to any complex system incorporating such competitive, adaptive agents-for example, an economy at any level, a biosphere at any level, a community of interest...a fitscape...is always in flux. It does not represent a delicate balance requiring husbandry but rather is a system in which change, based on adaptive fitness, is applauded."

From Network Distributed Computing: Fitscapes and Fallacies, Max K. Goff (Prentice Hall PTR, April 2004; ISBN: 0131001523)

Business competition too exists within the confines of one or more fitscapes, the attributes of which can be articulated. What makes sense is analysis that recognizes a continuous process of adaptation with respect to those fitscapes; in other words, change in business is constant, and that very change also affects the environment in which businesses must compete, the economist's notion of "exogenous" variables notwithstanding. Businesses must adjust strategically to those otherwise external changes even while those adjustments affect the external environment itself. While such an observation may seem painfully obvious and even trivial, it needs to be stated specifically to provide grounded context for further observations.

Platform fitscapes

The platform fitscape in which the Java platform competes has experienced considerable flux in the past five years. Point of fact, when I first wrote my series, there was no .Net, no C#, no bury-the-hatchet agreement on the horizon between Sun and Microsoft, and no viable competitor with respect to smart-card to super-computer scale when it comes to programming interface.

To the extent that .Net parrots Java, the fitscape has changed. Add to that the advent of Web services and SOA (service-oriented architecture), and the hard requirement for Java softens to "something like Java" when it comes to distributed platform requirements and capabilities.

Five years ago, Sun claimed somewhere around 2.5 million Java developers worldwide. At the time, the Java dream was in its ascendancy, with maybe 50 Java Specification Requests in a two-year-old JCP queue, and the quest of embracing and extending an Everest of legacy systems appeared to be a viable adventure. Today, while it can be argued that more than 150 JSRs have been submitted, if we consider that some 12 percent of that number have been withdrawn, and that the rate of submission has fallen to half of what it might have been during the giddy late-90s, the Java community may have peaked; the platform may very well be as nearly mature as it will ever be, which is to say that Java itself is now very much the legacy.

At the most recent JavaOne in San Francisco, Jonathan Schwartz made the assertion that some 4 million Java developers now roam the planet. Given that Sun claimed 2.5 million at the turn of the century, it will take another 20 years for the ranks to swell to the 10 million that has been touted as being prescriptive to Sun's full recovery...if present trends continue. But as with most change in the current epoch, we can be assured that present trends won't.

A comparison of language features, platform features, ease-of-programming, natural syntax, etc., are all moot today. It doesn't matter in a world where standard network service interfaces are defined and services deployed independently of platforms via XML-wrapped packaging, using a variety of approaches. Indeed, the coming wave of tools hide the resulting Java code from the programmer in any event, offering icon-based templates that allow drag-and-drop data binding and point-and-click application development.

Java Studio Creator from Sun Microsystems and Skyway Builder from Skyway Software are two examples of that next wave of tools that may begin to erode demand for pure Java developers. Where Creator provides a harness that still requires some bit of coding for commercial-grade applications to emerge, the Skyway product boasts a "100% Codeless Development Environment." Plus it's free—at least the personal edition is.

Five years ago, Java's performance was of some importance to developers. Ironically, it's not the performance of the code that matters any longer; it's the performance of the coder. But in a world that masks code with high-level sophisticated tools, how many more hard-core code warriors do we need? The 10 million mark Schwartz targets may well include a bevy of Web services designers who have no clue they are even generating Java bytecode as a result of their efforts.

By way of footnote and of passing interest is the rate of and extent to which broken links yet occur on the Internet. Hyperlinks are at once a useful innovation and a messy nuisance. Part 2 of the aforementioned series features at least one deep link that has now expired; ironically, the "Resources" link to Metcalf's Law on discorvery.org is no longer valid. Time is not without a sense of humor, it would seem. The same sort of cultural entropy may also apply to some of the conclusions reached in the aforementioned series.

Terminal thoughts

Five years is a very long time, and not such a very long time. While it seems as though Java itself has not really changed all that much since the dawn of the 21st century, the evolution of the business climate has changed the way we look at Java. The extent to which a new generation of developer tools may mask the hard-core Java programming skills erodes the need for those skills; as such, the business case for Java per se is not nearly as compelling as it once appeared to be—the platform fitscape itself having adjusted to the promise and presence of Java over the past five years.

Max Goff is a senior consultant and principal of Decillion, a boutique M&A and technology consulting firm located in New Albany, Miss. A published author, writer, and inventor (three technology patents pending), Goff holds an M.B.A. from the University of San Francisco and is a professional-level member of the World Future Society. He is a 20-year veteran of software development, with nine years at Sun, six of which were spent as a Java Technology Evangelist, specializing in Java Management Extensions, Jini, and Jxta.

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