One of the key initiatives now bubbling up from the Sun Microsystems' Java programming language milieu is Java Beans, a proposed set of component application programming interfaces (APIs). The Java Beans specification, when completed, is supposed to allow developers to write Java applets and applications from reusable components that can transfer their functionality to other Java applets and applications, as well as to non-Java, platform-dependent applications.
In essence, Java Beans amounts to multiplatform, object-oriented "glue" for Java; it will be a development architecture for producing Internet-focused applications and Web page applets that can run anywhere and interact with each other dynamically. With Java Beans in place, developers might have an open component model for the Web--one that would facilitate consistent reuse of programming objects across platforms.
At the moment, Java Beans hasn't come into being, so its acceptance and usefulness are matters for conjecture. A final specification is due to be published in December by JavaSoft, Sun's division responsible for the development and spread of Java. Following that, independent software vendors would be free to use the specification to create Java Beans development tools. "I expect to see tools available in the first half of 1997," says David Spenhoff, director of product marketing for JavaSoft in Mountain View, CA.
Only 18 months after its introduction to the marketplace by Sun, Java itself has already become the language of choice for cross-platform Internet applet and application development. Departing from its origin as a language designed for use in small electronic appliances, Java gained quick acceptance in the Internet environment due to its portability and handy features such as an inherent immunity to virus transmission.
The alternative to Java Beans, especially for Windows developers, is ActiveX, a refinement of Microsoft's existing Component Object Model (COM) standard and an extension of the company's broader Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) architecture. ActiveX controls, documents and frameworks are designed to enable interactive content on the Web through the use of objects. Although ActiveX supports Java, it currently does so only in the Windows environment; support on Unix and Macintosh platforms is still in the discussion stage.
Like Java as a whole, these APIs are attractive for their potential universality. Java Beans parts, or components, could be embedded inside COM containers--containers and parts are the most basic elements of component models--without any changes. They could also be melded into applications based on OpenDoc, an older cross-platform component architecture with potential but a lack of broad acceptance, promoted by Component Integration Laboratories of Sunnyvale, CA. In fact, Spenhoff claims that Java Beans is "the first and only truly cross-platform component architecture. You can write once and run everywhere that Java runs. It's being embedded in all the operating systems, in browsers and in other applications. You don't have to recompile, reengineer or rearchitect your applications as you move."
The list of companies publicly supporting Java Beans is impressive: IBM and IBM's Lotus division, Netscape Communications, Borland International, Oracle and Symantec. IBM has squelched its own Arabica project--designed to serve essentially the same purpose--in deference to Java Beans. "Arabica was an incubator project looking at what it would take to add component APIs to this new Java language, which we saw was gaining market acceptance," says Pak Mark, Java tools solution executive for IBM in Somers, NY. "We have basically shifted a lot of work that was being done on this incubator project to the Java Beans initiative."
Netscape is designing Java Beans support into its LiveConnect object framework for Web pages. Both Borland and Symantec have developed Java tools. Borland's Latte--the coffee metaphors are unending in this world--includes an editor, a fast compiler, a debugger and management tools, allowing developers to edit and debug their programs from the same place. The Scotts Valley, CA, company is also adding a series of ActiveX components that will put Web browsing capabilities into existing applications. Symantec of Cupertino, CA, is shipping a similar product called Cafe, which includes a compiler, a debugger and an interpreter for Java application development.
"We're all very motivated," says Rick Fleischman, Netscape's product manager for languages and tools in Mountain View, CA, about the companies supporting Java Beans. "The driving force behind Java Beans is the need for the Web to be component model-enabled. Netscape is interested in making sure it's easy and productive for people to build applications that run on Java."
Industry observers are making no grand predictions for the success of Java Beans, but there is general acknowledgment that its success is necessary for Internet-based application development to achieve the highest degree of openness. "It's another piece of the architecture that's absolutely critical," says Michael Goulde, executive and editor and senior consultant with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston. "It's critical for object interoperability, critical for component software, and critical for both the individual developer trying to build applets that work together and for different developers' applets to work together on different systems."
David Smith, research director for the Gartner Group in Nashua, NH, is more circumspect. "It's a piece of the infrastructure that's evolving," Smith says. "It's difficult to completely evaluate it at this point, because it doesn't exist yet. When Java started out, it didn't have all the pieces you need to make a complete environment. They've been adding things gradually. This is a key piece."
Although work on Java Beans will forge ahead with or without the support of Microsoft, interoperability between ActiveX and Java Beans appears vital to the fulfillment of Java Beans' cross-platform promise. That interoperability can occur without the support of Microsoft, and for now it appears it will have to. "Microsoft would rather have people working with ActiveX, and if someone is interoperating, great," Goulde says. "Microsoft's position would be that they're not particularly interested in devoting resources to that effort. But Java has enough momentum and strength in the marketplace that Microsoft's involvement is not critical."
"Microsoft has to support Java Beans, but they don't have to evangelize it, and I don't think they will," Smith says. Java's overall momentum, if sustained, could be enough to overcome Microsoft's foot-dragging.
As telephone companies and cable firms rush to become Internet service providers (ISPs), analysts predict an industry shakeout that will result in lower prices and a wider range of services, especially for large corporations. "There will be a mass consolidation of Internet service providers," says Bart Stanco, vice president for networking and the electronic workplace at the Gartner Group in Stamford, CT. "In the end, only a tenth of the current 2,500 ISPs will remain."
Analysts say the market will be dominated by Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) and long-distance carriers such as AT&T, MCI and Sprint, who are now permitted to become ISPs, thanks to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Regional ISPs will likely band together in consortia against this onslaught, although small ISPs may find crevices in the marketplace for at least the next several years.
This upheaval will not be confined to the United States. Chris Landes, an analyst with TeleChoice, a Verona, NJ, consulting firm, expects international firms to make a play for this market, bundling such things as voice mail and electronic mail with a variety of data management solutions. American firms, too, are looking outside their borders.
The result will be fierce competition. "Everyone wants to provide value-added services, mostly to businesses, such as Web hosting, security, commerce-related platforms and preferred delivery of content," says Mike Rothman, vice president of global networking strategies for the Meta Group in Reston, VA. "They want customers to become loyal to their services, as opposed to just seeing them as a pipe" (a connection to the Internet).
ISPs will go in two directions, analysts predict. On one hand, the entry of phone companies will "commoditize" Internet services, according to Steve Young, director of Internet electronic commercial programs for Input, a consulting group in Mountain View, CA. Overall, Internet prices will go down. For example, unlimited access for consumers will drop from the standard $20 a month to as little as $15 a month; customers who sign one- or two-year contracts will be able to shave another few dollars off their monthly fees "The telephone companies are used to offering universal service for everyone at a cheap price," says Young.
Landes anticipates many Internet services to be supported by online advertising, providing users with even lower pricing. "This would allow the ISPs to ask businesses what kinds of ads they want to see, such as from third-party suppliers," he says. "This will be an opportunity for companies to have ISPs help them manage information."
At the same time, the telcos' entry into the ISP market will start breaking down the idea that one price or level of service fits all. "At the moment, we really have only one type of service available in Internet service connection, and that same service is offered to individuals and businesses," says Young. "That's not good enough. Businesses need different grades of service and sets of capabilities. The telephone companies are big enough and sophisticated enough to provide those varying degrees of services."
Young foresees gradations of price depending on the level of services. For instance, telcos may begin to offer guarantees of certain response times, eliminating the current problem of delays in sending and receiving data. "That service will be important for some business applications," says Young. He also expects phone companies to offer Internet services that mimic some of their phone offerings, such as better reporting capabilities. Companies will be able to trace their employees' usage of the Internet, just as sophisticated telephone systems provide that reporting for phone calls.
Analysts agree that phone companies, which bring a 99 percent-plus level of reliability to phone networks, will upgrade the reliability of Internet networks. "I have an ISP who is not a local carrier, and I spend a tremendous amount of time just trying to get in," says Landes. ISPs, now mostly driven by price, will also have to compete on such things as ease of use.
Cable companies, eager to grab part of the ISP market, especially must work to step up their level of quality, says Landes. "I cannot count on one hand the number of times my cable service has been out in the past 30 days."
Rothman notes that the cable companies have experience in building networks to support the type of high-speed distribution the Internet requires. Largely in response to cable companies, for example, the telephone giant US West began trials of high-speed Internet access technologies, asymmetric data subscriber line (ADSL) and high-bit-rate data subscriber line (HDSL), which are 10 times as fast as integrated services digital network (ISDN).
Though Rothman expects phone companies to improve the management of IP networks, he says the telcos will have to deal with protocols and other technical issues. "The telephone net is a circuit-switch-oriented infrastructure that defines routes and connections," he explains. "The problem with IP is it has no specifically defined routes. Every packet must be effectively routed throughout the network as if it were the first one."
Most of the telephone companies pushing these ISP services are eager to manage their customers' IP connections, starting with those used internally. They could be disappointed. "My clients, who are mostly Global 2000 companies, are just buying the pipes--like frame-relay-type services--and continuing to manage the infrastructure and IP themselves," says Rothman.
Analysts agree that having Internet and phone services come from the same source could be a boon to companies. "There is a lot of synergy to be gained from using the same supplier for phone and Internet services," says Rothman. "Companies will have a lot more leverage in a dedicated connectivity world where high-bandwidth access to the Internet is being driven by RBOCs. If you have frame-relay services with AT&T, for instance, you might need to have the access pipe for the Internet upgraded, and AT&T would [provide that and] put a rider on your existing data services contract."
Rothman says a company would be wise to consider its current phone service provider for its ISP, unless the telco's Internet services are insufficient. Still, the increased choices will require companies to sort through vendors, winnowing down to a few possible choices in the new world of ISPs.