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Red Hat's Rich Sharples on Java at 25

Java's silver anniversary is right around the corner; in May, the venerable language undergirding acres of the enterprise and still supported by a community of more than seven million developers turns 25. But Java wasn't the only technology hitting the mainstream in 1995. The folks at Red Hat sent me a list of ground-breaking technology platforms, which, "taken as a whole, are the ancestral equivalent of the way we work, play, and live today." The idea was "to put Java and its birth-year brethren in context."

Cool idea.

Windows 95 was the most obvious item on the list, and if you thought about it for a minute, you'd probably recall that Internet Explorer 1.0 was released in 1995. But did you know that the DVD was invented in 1995 and released in late 1996? That the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) protocol was developed in 1994? That the first PlayStation was released in Japan in December 1994 and the rest of the world in 1995? Or that Amazon.com was founded in 1994? Or that JavaScript was created by Brendan Eich the same year James Gosling created Java?

"It's an interesting exercise," Rich Sharples, senior director of product management at Red Hat, told me. "Those are some cool technologies, but I think there's a big difference with some of them, in that consumer tech is rapidly forgotten as soon as there's a better alternative, like DVDs. But programming languages are not like that. They don't get deprecated very quickly, if ever. When people use them to build business critical systems, they can't just stop using them. They have to evolve and be maintained virtually forever."

The COVID-19-driven spike in unemployment claims has driven IBM to reach out to COBOL programmers to help scale those systems, Sharples pointed out. COBOL has been around since 1959. "Imagine if those systems had been built with microservices and four or five different languages," he said. "They probably wouldn't have survived 2 years, let alone 30."  

One big difference between Java and COBOL, of course, is Java's large and active community, which continues to contribute to the evolution of the language and platform. "Java has a bigger ecosystem now than it has at any time in its history," Sharples said. "There are lots of players, old and new, with an interest in Java, including Microsoft. So, there's still plenty of innovation going on in the Java world. People are still building cool stuff with Java."

Red Hat is among those still building the cool stuff. For example, last April the company launched Quarkus, a Kubernetes-native Java framework. The Raleigh, NC-based open-source solutions provider and long-time Java community leader also stepped in last year to assume the stewardship of OpenJDK projects no longer supported, long-term, by Oracle.

"Languages do tend to have a long shelf life, and Java is no exception," Sharples said, "In fact the two languages that top the popularity charts along with Java are Python, which is going through a renaissance with AI and ML, and JavaScript, the duct tape of the web—both of which are older languages. And C++ is always in there, too."

"I said this on the 10th anniversary," Sharples added, "the last Java developer has not been born yet. My 18-year-old daughter is at home from university, where she's been studying AI and machine learning. But in her basic computer science classes the language she's learning is Java."

Posted by John K. Waters on April 15, 2020