Category: Java

The Sun Also Sets

January 23rd, 2007 — 1:17pm

Recently, a couple articles caught my attention. Triggered by news of the lack of Java on the iPhone, these articles go on to address Java’s failure on the desktop in general. Check out Duncan Davidson’s post here as well as Jens Alfke’s here. In the spirit of these articles, I’d like to tell a story, one that many have not heard and that, after all these years, should be told. It’s a story not only about what was, but about what might have been.

Years ago, I worked at a company called Lighthouse Design (I refer you here for a brief history and background). Sun bought Lighthouse in 1996. While we were officially Sun, we were somewhat separate. We enjoyed some level of autonomy and even got to stay in our own offices, avoiding a move to Sun’s campus.

It was an odd transitional time for Lighthouse. The codebase for our apps was in Objective-C and Sun was pushing Java. The notion was to possibly port the apps over to Java thus giving Sun an instant desktop suite. Yes, Sun also had OpenStep but Java was shiny, new and all the rage and besides, Sun was slowly killing OpenStep. At the time, the AWT was the only option for doing UI with Java. I don’t think I need to elaborate on why that was a problem. We developed an Openstep-like framework in Java to make porting easier and for the most part we were successful. The Lighthouse Foundation Classes (LFC) were not an exact implementation but they were close enough to make porting more of a mechanical process.

As a result of this, we became another party in the Java GUI Toolkit war. In addition to us, there was Netscape’s IFC also done by NeXT-inspired developers as well as the threat of Microsoft’s AFC. JavaSoft recognized they had to do something about this. The result: they got us and Netscape to discontinue our toolkits in favor of their upcoming project, in order to provide a common front against Microsoft. JavaSoft asked us, along Netscape and Taligent (I forget how they got tangled in this), to join them in the design and implementation what would become Swing.

It quickly became evident that the people involved from the JavaSoft side had little to no experience with OO and/or GUI programming. I realized that if these were the people in charge of implementing the GUI toolkit for a platform, then the project is going to be a mess. Various design discussions ensued with the people who didn’t have any real experience with OO programming or developing and shipping real desktop apps overriding those who did. I soon dropped out. The other LFC team members managed to stick around long enough to do some coding but over time they left as well.

In a nutshell, Sun had at least two toolkits with superior APIs that were ready to go. NIH syndrome was in full effect. Politics and territorialism won.

It’s worth mentioning that Sun is sitting on the Objective-C codebase for all of Lighthouse’s apps; another casualty of war resulting from their hubris. It’s sad how they could ignore those who were experienced (but considered “outsiders”) and how they thought they could figure out this whole desktop experience thing themselves. Sun does make great system-level software but history has shown time and time again that they do not “get it” when it comes to end users and the desktop.

One can only imagine what could have been. A Java GUI framework that was quite similar Cocoa. Or possibly a whole suite of productivity apps for OS X. I can’t say whether it would have been a success for Sun, but at least they would have been taken seriously. Sun “coulda been a contenda.” Sun had the technology and talent to become a force on the desktop and managed to squander both. The code is locked away somewhere in Sun’s vaults and most of the people have moved on to better things (some to places in the Mac sphere). The only thing they seemed to really get out of the Lighthouse deal was a CEO.

P.S. I apologize if I skimped on details concerning the death of OpenStep. If anyone from that team wants to tell that story, let me know and I’ll link to it. Likewise for the IFC team.

Update: Terrence Talbot of Karelia has put up a great writeup of the history from his perspective of being a member of the OpenStep team at Sun with some background on the IFC thrown in as well. It fills in a lot of holes and goes much more into the specific details concerning the politics at Sun. An essential read.

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