Are applets making a comeback?

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

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Chet, from behind the curtain

In addition to answering my questions, Chet Haase proposed one of his own: What do you think is the greatest thing about Java today? You might think that Chet's answer would focus on Java's platform independence, security features, or even its wealth of APIs. However, none of these answers even come close. According to Chet, the greatest thing about Java is "Duke. He's just so darned perky."

Can applets come, too?

Despite significant problems and a general disillusionment among Java developers, applets still have a presence on the Web. It's hard to say whether they will continue to be marginalized or will, in fact, make a comeback as a fundamental piece of Java's rich Internet development platform. Java SE 6 update 10 and up, JavaFX Script, and JMC are all tremendously promising technologies, though as yet largely untested. Even if these technologies revitalize Java on the client side, it's unclear whether applets -- a holdout from the "bad old days" of Java on the client -- will be part of the renaissance. So I asked my final question: Do applets have a future on the Java platform?

Danny Coward: With the upcoming releases of JavaFX for the desktop, and Java SE 6 update 10, we're really taking a big big leap forward into the rich client space. We've addressed the runtime issues of startup and installation. We're transforming the development model with a new language designed from the ground up for today and tomorrow's generation of rich client applications and a new generation of designers. We're finally bringing the level of media support to where it needs to be with the JMC project. We're rolling out a development model and runtime that because its based on and built in Java, will span multiple devices.

Applets are the central model for Java and JavaFX rich clients. Some people have predicted a renaissance for Applets in 2008. I think they are right.

Romain Guy: I think they will have a future because Sun will keep pushing applets but I think they should just be forgotten. Nobody really cares about applets anymore and with the free Flex SDK, or even Silverlight available on the major three platforms (Mac, Linux ,and Windows), I really don't see why we should even bother with applets anymore.

Chet Haase: Applets definitely have a future. In fact, they've had such a long history that that history will continue into the future. That is, there are many sites out there that provide applet games already that aren't going away. Also, many companies use applet technology internally and will presumably continue to do so.

I think the question is whether there will be any new movement toward using applets for consumer applications; will there be any new content, especially content that uses some of the new technologies coming out of Sun, such as Java FX and the Update 10 features? I frankly don't know. There was a real trend toward using applets many years ago, but that trend has gone elsewhere. There are so many alternate approaches out there for building Web applications; Ajax, Silverlight, Flex, and probably a lot more now and in the future. Will any of the changes in Java be enough to bring developers back?

I think the changes that are being made in Java are great, and a necessary part of keeping the platform current. But it's not clear to me whether they will be game-changing enough to make Java a player in the consumer space of Web applications again.

Cay Horstmann: Yes, if you are a Java shop, or if what you want to do exceeds the capabilities of Flash.

For that to change, Sun has to do a heck of a lot more heavy lifting than we have seen so far. I give them credit for trying, and I hope they succeed.

Ted Neward: Honestly, no, except for very small tightly-focused applications and/or controls to augment the HTML on the Web page. Mind you, I think applets should have gotten a better deal, given how limiting HTML is when compared to other technologies, and Ajax doesn't exactly offer a "lightweight" solution: running Gmail in your browser yields a memory footprint that's roughly equivalent to that of Microsoft Outlook. Trying to build an application that has a consistent user interface across the browsers is awkward and difficult, particularly as each browser release introduces new bugs, or fixes old ones and thus breaks the workarounds; this was a problem that applets never faced. But the industry fell in love with the 3270-esque nature of HTML, thus putting us on a long hiatus from elegant user interfaces as a result, and the pressure to fix the problems with applets in 1998 just evaporated.

Jim Weaver: I believe that Java and JavaFX applets will come back with a vengeance. One thing that will contribute to its success is the simplicity, elegance, and power of JavaFX Script. Another contributing factor will be Java SE 6 update 10.

John Zukowski: Applets work well as an advertising vehicle or for enhanced navigation where the solution is compact. Deploying full-size, client-side applications are better left to Java Web Start and other solutions where they are disconnected from the browser. Everything does not have to live in a browser these days.

In conclusion

Weighing the discussion generated by my questions for this article and my own experience developing a rich Internet applet using JavaFX Script, I'm optimistic that Sun's efforts to make applets a viable alternative to Ajax, Flex/Flash, and Silverlight will pay off, at least to some extent. While it is true, as some of the thinkers here have pointed out, that Sun is late to the game (overcoming problems that plague both browser-based applets and applications), Microsoft is a relative newcomer to the Internet arena and now has a big share of the browser market.

Rather than seeing applets dominating the other technologies used for rich Internet development, I see them as just another choice for getting the job done. Given reason to be confident that various applet problems have been addressed, RIA developers and UI designers are as likely to use applets as we are to use the alternatives.

Also see "The new applet experience" -- a short experiment in rich Internet applet development using JavaFX Script.

Jeff Friesen is a freelance software developer and educator who specializes in Java technology. Check out his website to discover all of his published Java articles and more.

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