IS Survival Guide: The Future of Java, XML

SAN MATEO (01/24/2000) - MANAGEMENT SPEAK: Successfully resolving this problem is vital to the company.

TRANSLATION: Successfully resolving this problem is vital to your continued employment with this company.

-- IS Survivalist Dana Persells shows how individual and corporate goals align.

Did you notice that year-2000 remediation costs failed to crush our economy?

Two years ago I predicted the economic nonimpact of the year-2000 bug, because its major economic impact was a transfer of wealth from corporate coffers to individual middle-class computer programmers, not an elimination of wealth from our economy.

The absence of a year-2000-like crisis, in contrast, may cause real problems.

Money moving from the wealthy into the middle class is healthy, not detrimental, but if IT spending slows down, less of that will happen. The IT labor shortage will ease (and IT unemployment will rise) as companies wave goodbye to the hard-working employees who got them through the crisis.

We'll see if it happens that way this year.

While we're updating past predictions, let's talk about Java. Microsoft Corp. tried to "help" me on my prediction that proprietary extensions would diminish Java's "write once/run anywhere" promise by adding Windows-specific features to its version, but the courts sided with Sun Microsystems Inc. So here's a replacement prediction: Despite Sun's current recalcitrance, within two years, its partners will no longer accept its hegemony. Either Sun will turn Java over to a standards body, or its partners will de-emphasize Java in their strategies.

It will matter less and less, though, because my other prediction about Java -- that it will become just another programming language -- is on track. Both Lotus Development Corp. and Corel Corp. have abandoned their Java-based office suites. No vendors have released large, successful Java-based business applications, either. The best we've seen are systems that use Java in the midtier and to enhance browser-based functionality.

Updated prediction: Java will find a niche as the midtier language of choice in n-tier client/server development projects, although its performance deficiencies compared to those of compiled languages will continue to constrain its value.

Java will continue to be useful in extending browser-based interfaces. Here's a long shot: unexpected competition from Macromedia Inc., which has been adding functionality to Flash and Shockwave and recognizes (in 2001?) that adding forms with database and transaction connectivity is a logical addition to its feature set.

Whatever else happens, Java will not become what Cobol once was: the dominant tool for developing business applications.

If Java will be disappointing except in the midtier, how about its companion midtier technology, Extensible Markup Language (XML)? XML, a pragmatic version of Standard Generalized Markup Language, will increase in importance. It didn't take much courage to predict XML's success last February, so I'm not claiming credit for prognostication. Most technologies that receive as much hype as XML has end up disappointing their promoters, though. XML won't.

Except for this: Among XML's advocates are nafs who expect the language to be a sort of technological Esperanto, except that people will actually use XML. In other words, there are those who expect XML to be a universal language with which everyone can communicate with everyone else who speaks it.

It isn't. Language requires syntax, vocabulary, and semantics. XML only defines syntax. For each context in which XML holds promise, market leaders will define specialized XML vocabularies. These efforts will be most successful in creating a replacement to both HTML and proprietary file formats, merging these two art forms into one standard way of representing documents.

While XML also will succeed as the language of choice for defining meta data, the nature of its success will come as a disappointment for many electronic-business evangelists. The hard word of mapping internal data structures to each specialized industry or supply-chain XML vocabulary will be subject to the same semantic difficulties that have plagued electronic data interchange since its early EDIFACT/ANSI X.10 days.

Even when two companies use identical tags to label data fields, the meaning each one assigns to a tag may be subtly different, simply because the two companies think about things differently.

That's to be expected. Human knowledge is messy. Its representation -- in XML, English, or Urdu -- will be messy, too.

Write to, or join Bob's forum on Bob Lewis is a Minneapolis-based consultant at Perot Systems.

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