Are applets making a comeback?

Good old applets -- do they deserve a place in your RIA toolkit today?

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JRE deployment

Today, when Java developers write Web pages that incorporate applets, we have to hope that users will be able to run them as they're intended; that they'll have the most current version of the JRE installed, or at least the version for which that applet was written. This is a source of frustration for many of us because no matter how well-written a given applet might be, it will not run well on an outdated JRE. Furthermore, users have to deal with the annoying notification that the Java technology embedded in a given page will not run properly due to that same outdated JRE. Few users will take the time to manually download and install something as amorphous as a "Java Runtime Environment" before viewing a Web page; most will just quickly navigate to some other page.

Java cold start

Startup performance and Java Virtual Machine reliability are two further challenges to crafting a satisfying user experience based on applets. Users often face a lengthy delay the first time an applet is encountered because the browser must load and start the JVM -- this issue is known as a cold start. Worse, browsers have been known to freeze due to a virtual machine crash -- hardly a way to make a good impression on a visitor to your Web application or site!

Tidy poor clients

In an age when the mantra for desktop and Web developers is "filthy rich clients" Java's client-side technologies are simply lagging. For just a few examples, most developers favor a simple drag-and-drop UI-composition model, but Swing doesn't have it. Swing also lacks support for animated transitions, an important aspect of many rich user interfaces. And finally, the Java Media Framework (JMF) was last updated in 2004. It really isn't up to the challenge of today's rich media demands.

I conclude that JRE deployment, startup performance, JVM reliability, and UI-related problems are all external factors that plague applet-based development. When I queried the developers in my "applet think tank" on this topic, some of them shared my conclusions, and also expanded upon them.

What's wrong with applets?

Q: What's wrong with applets -- why are so many Java developers migrating to technologies such as Flex, Silverlight, and Ajax?

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