The language that will light up your Web

Java turns pages into all-singing, all-dancing events. Charles Arthur on the program that gives the Net a mind

If you have been surfing around new Web sites recently, you will probably have noticed a new word: Java. About 100,000 pages contain it right now. And they may be the key to making the Web a truly interesting, useful place. Why? If you use an older browser, you may have seen this note: "If you were using a Java-enabled browser, you would see an animated ...", followed by a text description of what you're missing: dancing coffee cups, stock market prices, flags waving in an electronic breeze (at the White House site), spinning globes. You name it, someone's beavering away at animating it, or turning it into a sound file.

If you are using Netscape 2.0, you won't have to read the words - you can see the pictures or hear the sounds for yourself, always assuming you have the patience for them to be downloaded over your data link. Even quite small animations can require 50 kilobytes of data, which - given the sluggishness of many links - can mean a minute's thumb-twiddling.

But to have reached 100,000 sites is not bad for a product that was released only last summer. Its widespread success resembles that of Netscape, in that its creator, Sun Microsystems, has been distributing it for free over the Internet, letting word of mouth (or e-mail) do much of the job of publicity.

Unlike Netscape's browser, which is a program, Java is a programming language, developed in 1990 by James Gosling, a programmer at Sun Microsystems. Originally called "Oak", it was intended to be used in domestic products such as toasters, videos and car alarms. In a world where toasters, like microwave ovens, have inbuilt software (and that's not far off), you could send a Java program down the telephone line to upgrade your toaster. Gosling never lost sight of the idea that Java should be bug-proof and easy to develop but hard to tamper with. So the toaster would not catch fire because of an error in transmission or a bug.

But before that became reality, the World Wide Web happened. The trouble with the Web to date has been that while you could have titles that blinked (which were annoying to the eyes) and you could download motion or sound files to play in your own time, the actual pages themselves were dull. As George Gilder, a writer and futurist, puts it: "Content today is dead, static." But with Java, he says, "content wins".

The reason is that Web pages come to life when your browser connects to a Java-enabled site. Part of the page's contents, besides the usual HTML text, will be a small program, called an "applet", written in Java. This is sent to your computer, where it runs: dancing, singing coffee cups and so on.

You don't even have to specify what operating system (Mac, DOS, Sun) you are using: the browser picks up the code and transfers it over to your Java-enabled browser, which reads and interprets it and follows its instructions. If your browser can't handle Java, nothing happens: it simply ignores the Java instructions.

Is the applet not like a virus? How do you know it does not have an instruction such as "Wipe clean the hard disk" in it?

Mr Gosling and his associates at Sun thought of that. The applet runs inside a "virtual machine" on your computer: in essence, it ropes off an area of electronic memory (RAM) and allows the applet to create and change data only there. The applet is not allowed to access the machine's peripherals but instead passes its data back to your browser, which then passes them to the screen or disc. (Though someone did discover a way to get the applet to bypass the browser earlier this year - a flaw that was quickly fixed by Sun.)

However, the applet's resemblance to a virus means that occasionally "firewalls" - machines installed to prevent viruses and hackers getting into a private network from the Internet - won't let them past. This problem is gradually being tackled.

If you are in an excitable mood, like Danny Hillis, adjunct professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you will agree that, "Java allows the network to have a `mind'. This is revolutionary. Communication takes place between computers that is meaningful to them."

Eric Schmidt, Sun's chief technology officer, believes that Java has a key similarity to an earlier, and fantastically successful, bit of software. "Java is going to be the DOS of the 1990s," he says. "It may not be perfect but neither was DOS at first. Its chief benefit is its ubiquity. It has shortcomings, but it's everywhere."

And, who knows, in time you might be able to download cool Java programs from the Net to upgrade your toaster or microwave.

For more information about Java, including a (rather technical) introduction, visit http://www.javasoft.com/. To get a browser capable of running Java programs, try Netscape 2.0, available at http://home.netscape.com/.

A huge list of Java applets, with reviews, can be found via http://www.jars.com/

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
News
people
Sport
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
News
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Sport
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

    Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

    £45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

    £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

    Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

    £25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?