Sun Microsystems has promised a 12- to 18-month time frame for each major release of the JDK. To keep within that time frame, Sun hopes to unveil the beta release of the JDK 1.4 -- code-named Merlin -- this March. The Java Community Process (JCP) has been working on the release for more than a year. The coolest thing about this release is that the JCP allows its users to actively participate in deciding the features and the direction that Java should take. Merlin was developed under Java Specification Request (JSR) 59.
According to Merlin's JSR, the release is focused on reliability, serviceability, scalability, performance, and deployment. I define it as a focus on building "maintainable software." It will include many new APIs with added functionality, for which we had to use third-party APIs in the past. Getting those APIs bundled with JDK will standardize them; that will reduce software development time and maintenance costs. I will talk about those APIs shortly. Merlin's final feature set is not yet public, so some of the features discussed in this article might not appear in the final release.
I've used various JSRs on the JCP Website as resources for this article. If you're already familiar with these JSRs -- such as JSR 59 Merlin release contents, JSR 54 JDBC 3.0 Specification, and JSR 31 XML Data Binding Specification -- you already have a head start. Otherwise, I strongly recommend that you check out the JCP Website. JSRs not only tell you what is coming in a new release (thus giving you a market advantage), but also allow you to participate in the Java development. (See Resources for more information.)