Caffeinated Bitstream

Bits, bytes, and words.

The Java user experience

A friend of mine wrote an interesting blog post advocating the use of Java for rich internet applications, and expressed frustration with its lack of Web 2.0 mind share. This got me to thinking about how a lack of polish often seems to hold Java back, and I wrote the following comment in response. (I'm reposting it here because, yeah, I'm just that desperate for blog material.)

Technically speaking, I think Java could make a killer platform for the sorts of applications you're describing. I quite like Java, and I'm especially looking forward to the improved dynamic language support that Java 7 is supposed to offer.

However, I think Sun has not been very successful at managing the customer experience. Success in this sort of consumer-facing technology requires not only solid engineering, but getting right a lot of the small details that add up to a positive experience. Several things come to mind about Java:

  1. As you mentioned, people remember applets from the bad old days.
  2. Java has always struggled with trying to provide responsive GUIs, and no amount of switching back and forth between heavyweight and lightweight widgets has helped. I haven't looked at Java GUIs lately (or JavaFX), but like applets, it may be an uphill battle to convince people that things are different now.
  3. When I mentioned the use of Java to a customer once, he looked at me in shock and said, "You mean that thing in my system tray that's always bugging me about needing to be updated?" Flash, which has arguably won the applet war, doesn't generate that sort of reaction in people.
  4. Oh yeah, speaking of system trays... Java finally introduced support for putting icons in the "system tray" / "notification area" in December 2006 -- about ten years too late. Ten years is not a fast enough response time when competing on feature points related to the user experience.
  5. Probably many other minor details...

Steve Jobs would not approve of the conditions that led to the above points. I'm not an Apple fanboy or anything, but let's face it... the dude knows how to sell products. Sun needs to take a page or two from the Apple book, and focus on the spit and shine. Even then, Sun will need to lay down some serious shock and awe to supersede bad memories. I would love to see Sun pull this off, before everyone gives up and just starts writing web applications in x86.