The Java Internet Business Expo, a first-of-its-kind event last week in New York, was supposed to bring some confirmation that Sun Microsystems Inc.'s highly touted programming language can change many basic aspects of business computing for the better.
Instead, the 15,000 who attended got caught in a debate set off by a newspaper article.
As the convention was getting into high gear last Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal on its front page suggested that Java has been over-hyped and has failed to deliver on its promises.
The keynote speakers essentially talked back, asserting that any criticisms about Java's speed and ability to work within and across virtually any computer framework had been rectified.
Java, they said, has been integrated into 700,000 sites on the World Wide Web.
Sun Microsystems, Netscape Communications Corp., and International Business Machines Corp. announced an alliance to set up a Java Porting and Tuning Center at Sun's JavaSoft headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. It aims to bring "100% Pure Java" products to market quickly. And Novell, Oracle, Symantec, Lotus, Microsoft, and Intel were invited to join the effort.
"We're not changing the model; we're not going proprietary," said Scott McNealy, chairman and chief executive officer of Sun Microsystems. "We will continue to use the same open process."
James Barksdale, president of Netscape, also endorsed Java as part of the Netscape Everywhere initiative that aims to get its browser technology into 100 million client devices, mainly personal computers. He said the next version of Netscape Navigator would be 100% Pure Java, and he jokingly called it the Javagator.
Also on the bandwagon, IBM is putting Java code in its server software and supporting the language in its eight Solutions Studios around the world.
The computer giant-which, it is easy to forget, is an even bigger software company than Microsoft-sees the banking and business communities embracing network computing, and Java would logically follow. In this model, server computers take on heavier loads, and clients - now typically personal computers - become less elaborate, or "thinner."
"Network computing is all about transaction-intensive applications," said John M. Thompson, senior vice president and software group executive at IBM. "Two-thirds of new information spending is predicted to be spent on NCs (network computers) over the next three years."
He said more and more corporate business transactions are being done electronically. "This is happening because speed is helping businesses solve pressing problems, and Java is a critical component in that," said Mr. Thompson.
"Flexibility comes from the ability of not having to separate client development and application development," he went on. "Now it is possible to put applications together and run them on a platform that makes the most sense."
"Computing is becoming centralized but location-transparent," and a "zero administration" workstation is what customers value, said Eric Schmidt, chairman and chief executive officer of Novell Corp. "We're moving away from flat networks, big clients and servers, and static applications to more dynamic information, mobility, and server-centric platforms. The most interesting model is Java on the server and Java on the client."
A former Sun executive who is at home among the critics of Microsoft and its desktop computing philosophies, Mr. Schmidt said of that company's Active-X approach, "It is insecure and only runs on one platform."
Oracle Corp., another Microsoft antagonist in the Java camp, has come out with a Java-based Internet Commerce Server that accommodates electronic bill presentment and payment.
Telephone products are on the way from Alcatel of France, Northern Telecom of Canada, and Samsung of Korea, with screens that allow for Internet browsing and electronic mail and smart card integration, so on- line banking and payment strategies can begin to take real shape.
"Retail banks could give their customers a screen phone that they could use as a personal ATM in the safety and privacy of their home," said Mr. McNealy.
Patrick Liot, vice president of communications terminals at Alcatel, said the Web-based screen phone market had a $20 billion potential, with units selling for $500 or less. Product releases are slated for early 1998. (He did not mention that makers of the current generation of screen phones have struggled to sell them for $300.)
In the two years since Sun Microsystems' commercial launch of Java, few retail financial services companies have embraced it to the extent of First Tennessee Bank of Memphis. It plans to begin a Java-based home banking pilot in the next two weeks.
Norwest Mortgage, the largest mortgage lender in the country, has chosen the Java Enterprise Computing platform.
"We're concentrating on the three-tier application architecture to integrate our legacy system with new technology," said William Adamowski, chief technology officer at Norwest Mortgage.
Michael DeSanti, president of Enterprise Management Consulting Inc., pointed out that its financial services Java clients include Chase Manhattan Corp., J.P. Morgan & Co., Citicorp, and Morgan Stanley.
IBM is working with two banks to integrate Java platforms: KeyCorp of Cleveland and Cera Bank of Belgium.
On the show floor, GraphOn Corp. of Campbell, Calif., said Union Bank of Switzerland, Toronto-Dominion Bank of Canada, and Lehman Brothers in London have bought into its thin client approach for Unix-based desktops, which enables users to preserve their legacy system investments while moving to the network computing model.
Sqribe Technologies of Menlo Park, Calif., which provides production reporting software, introduced Web-based tools including ReportMart for data warehouses.
Financial institutions that already use SQR, Sqribe's production reporting tool, are Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs & Co., Citicorp, and Comerica Inc.
Vitria Technology Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., is focusing on financial information providers for its publishing and subscription system. Dow Jones & Co. is one of its early customers. With little Java applications, or applets, it can track in real-time currency valuations, news feeds, stocks, bonds, interest rates, and order status. It has a number of financial customers using its front- and back-office applications and will launch a product late this month, code named ICE, to extend the real-time capabilities of financial service businesses.