One time only: Java-Javascript smackdown

Truly nerds only.

Twice in recent days (here and here) I've mentioned my reactions to Chrome, the new browser from Google. A number of dopes "low information readers"* have written asking what I have against this new entry in the browser wars.

Nothing at all!  I am now using it, alongside Firefox, on all three computers here in the Beijing HQ -- one ThinkPad, two Macs. (I am composing this post via Chrome, on a MacMini.) Chrome is Windows-only but runs fine, like all other Windows programs I've tried, under VMware Fusion on the Macs. It is a very interesting program with some immediate advantages over Firefox. Most obvious one: when you have a lot of web pages open, a freeze in one page or "tab" is unlikely to make all open pages freeze, as can happen in Firefox.

My point, to clarify for those who can't read benefit from repetition, is an "enthusiasts versus civilians" distinction. If you are a computer enthusiast, of course you're going to find this fascinating and worthwhile. If you're a civilian user -- not interested in the process, just in getting the results -- I say, there are enough transition difficulties that you should wait a while. Wait, for instance, until Chrome can easily handle RSS feeds, or has extensions like Firefox, or runs in native-Mac version, or has improved bookmark handling.

Now, the promised smackdown. Recently I posted comments from one tech veteran, Ken Broomfield, about what Chrome's emergence says about the "early days" of web programming, ie the mid-1990s. In included the argument that if the Java programming language had developed the way it could and should have, a lot of latter-day workarounds would not be necessary.

After the jump, the Other Side of the Story, from another tech veteran who doesn't want to be named. This is an one time only "fairness doctrine" airing of a contrary view. I lack the expertise to referee future rounds of argument, and there are other places where nerds can hash it out. But since Fox News is not the only institution that believes in fair and balanced coverage, I post this response below.

* Apologies to anyone who took offense! A splenetic little joke, based on too much email from people who, in my view, were not trying hard enough to understand previous posts.


My correspondent writes:

... I am a nerd.  As such, I'm afraid I have to dispute a bit of what your friend Ken Broomfield, the founder of iRider (which I've downloaded and am evaluating now), wrote to you about the early days of web application development. 

From a developer's perspective, Java was far too complicated and the performance of the Java Virtual Machine far too poor to be useful for web applications in the early days of the internet. 

Broomfield refers to Java as a "technology that's superior to the Javascript language" and suggests that JavaScript "should have been unnecessary, and sophisticated web applications should have appeared a long time ago," but that's false.  As programming (or scripting) languages go, JavaScript has always been relatively easy to learn and has allowed developers (and businesses) to rapidly develop useful web applications. 

The same is not true of the strict and complex Java programming language.  Good Java programmers were (and still are) few and expensive; good web technology (JavaScript/CSS/HTML) developers were (and still are) abundant and less expensive and, again, the performance of JVMs in web browsers was crap until recently.

Web application development has evolved along with PC hardware and available consumer bandwidth.  YouTube was not possible 10 years ago; it is now thanks to Flash, faster machines and the fact that a great many people have broadband internet connections.  Flash, not Java.  Java is still far too complex, and Java developers far too expensive, for client-side web development.  Java is, more often than not, not the right tool for client-side web application development.  It is a "superior" technology in the same way that a jackhammer is superior to an ordinary hammer for driving a nail into a wall.

Additionally, the "Balkanizing effect" that Broomfield sees in the current competition between "inferior" client-side web technologies offered by Adobe, Microsoft and web browser developers (Google did not invent JavaScript; they have, however, developed Gears and their own JavaScript interpreter to improve JS performance and to mimic some of the functionality offered by desktop applications) is merely healthy competition between companies that would like to sell software tools (in the case of Adobe and Microsoft) or advertising (in the case of Google).  He seems to suggest that Sun's Java should have been accepted as the standard years ago and that Sun should be rewarded, in one way or another, for enabling the rest of us to develop "sophisticated" web applications now and forever.

Java failed as a client-side web application technology for good reasons and web applications are evolving at a reasonable and steady rate.  Like many nerds, I am excited by the possibilities presented by the current crop of web (and mobile; the line is getting blurry) technologies and am thankful that I don't have to spend my days coding in Java.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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