doing TODAY and not getting caught in the HYPE of tomorrow

Alan Williamson

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Hmmmmmmm...What if?

Hmmmmmmm...What if?

It's that time of year again - the time when we all pretend to get along with one another for a few weeks. It's the time for families to come out of the woodwork, for getting out that knitted pullover from the Auntie whose name you can never quite remember. I can't wait until the New Year comes round again so we can go back to disliking people. Bah humbug!

Season's greetings to one and all. Actually, contrary to popular belief, I love this time of year. Over here in Scotland we generally get a white Christmas, and it's been known for me to get all "Bing" and burst out in floods of unrecognizable notes - which is never a bad thing!

Before We Get to What If...
It's Alan Williamson and here we are for another column of "Straight Talking." This has been an interesting month for me, one that has found me in all four corners of the world. My regulars will know that I usually take a characteristic and focus an article on it, contrasting it to our world of Java. Well, this month is going to be no different. I think we'll plump for dreaming. The ability to play "What if?" games. You know the sort: "What if I won a million dollars?" or "What if I was the best Java programmer in the world?" (We all think we're the best, so maybe that wasn't a good example.)

Anyway, this month my business took me back to Tokyo, and then over to Sydney, Silicon Valley, Boston and then finally New York. This was only my second time in Silicon Valley; the first time was when I was at JavaOne last year. But back then I never got a chance to look around the place - well, that's not exactly true!

I'm not sure how many of you have ever visited Silicon Valley. I suspect the majority of you have. Therefore you know what it is, and, more important, what it is not. I've been in this industry for many years, and during that time I've had this picture of Silicon Valley - a picture, I discovered, that was shared by many who've also never been there. I assumed Silicon Valley was one big industrial park set in acres of lush green gardens with signposts pointing to all the big players in the computing industry. Was I in for a shock!

The reason I missed it the first time around was that I was actually looking for such a place. I think I must have gone to every shopping mall trying to find the infamous "Silicon Valley." Time beat me then, so this time I got me a proper tour guide. James Davidson from Sun kindly lent me his know-how and drove me around Silicon Valley, pointing out all the major headquarters of the companies that shape our industry.

James showed me the offices of Sun, Apple, IBM, Netscape, Oracle and HP, to name some of the big boys. Each building, or set of buildings in some cases, was very impressive - and breathtaking when you think that what's potentially happening inside those buildings will affect every one of us and how we work. We have companies working on hardware, browsers, networks, databases and, most important, Java - all within a few miles of each other.

The Truth About Silicon Valley
For those of you who shared my view of Silicon Valley, let me tell you it's not like that at all. It's not one big industrial/business park. In fact, Silicon Valley is the name given to a region that technically doesn't exist. No map displays it. No signposts point to it. It's a collection of towns that among them house the most important and influential companies in the world.

I went to Boston next to drop in on one of the students we sponsor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. I recounted the vision of Silicon Valley to Shahzad, and he agreed with me that his vision was somewhat aligned with mine. Then we got talking, and it's here that I'd like to bring you in.

Our discussions took us many a place, most of it dreaming, thinking about exciting innovations coming from that wee corner of California. Then it took on a sinister tone. We got worried. Here's where I posed the question, "What if we woke up one morning and Silicon Valley was no longer there?" The two of us just stared at each other for a moment, each of us mentally calculating the impact that "What if" would have on the world as a whole.

Now, we know the chances of this actually happening are small. We all know that the entire state of California is on a famous fault line, the San Andreas Fault. One of the biggest misconceptions about this particular fault line is that one day California will fall into the sea. Before writing this article, I did some research into it and came up with some interesting facts and figures. For example, California will not fall into the sea, but instead it is moving up toward Alaska and Canada at a rate of around 35 mm a year. So Bill Gates is going to have Scott McNealy as a neighbor after all!

Second, in the last 10 years California has experienced around 20,000 tremors. Granted, most of them have been small, but considering that every point in California is only 30 miles away from a major earthquake zone, you have to wonder whether Mother Nature engineered Silicon Valley to be where it is as part of her global natural selection program.

On another note, in Cold War times it was rumored that most of Russia's missiles were aimed at California. This would have wiped out most of the entertainment and computing industry. Couple that with the earthquakes, and suddenly old California doesn't look so appealing.

But back to the question I posed. What if we woke up one morning and suddenly the headquarters of Sun, Netscape, Apple and Oracle were no longer there? Everything was lost. How would this impact the rest of us?

Would Java Die?
Since we're all in the Java world, let's look at what might happen with Java. As we know, most of the major API development is performed on De Anza drive in Cupertino, at Sun. Now let's take Sun out of the picture. They're gone. Let's assume they lost all their top engineers, and their satellite offices didn't have the know-how to continue core development.

I don't think Java would die, but it would be a very different Java world from what we know now. Java would probably splinter into x different versions and go the way UNIX did back when it was released. Every major IT company in the world would assume responsibility and start supporting their new flavor.

Microsoft is a prime example of a company that would like (and is trying) to own Java; IBM is another. Each of these chaps has huge amounts to gain by controlling the Java platform. Microsoft fears Java will threaten its dominance in the PC marketplace, so it's trying everything in its arsenal to taint Java and make it difficult for its programs to run. Anyone who's coded an applet for IE4 knows only too well that the same applet for Netscape will not run half as sweetly as in IE4.

Microsoft has dismissed the idea of a Java station as impractical, and is very keen to promote its WinTerm as an alternative. Chances are this will succeed. Why? Because, let's be honest, we have very little choice. Big corporations will stick with solutions already in place, and NT is gaining market share rapidly. Does that mean we as Java developers are going to have to face the Microsoft classes at some point in our careers? Hopefully not.

Now, assuming that in our game here Netscape is also taken out of the game means the browser war is effectively over. IE will become the de facto, nay, the only browser available. So we can conclude that taking Silicon Valley and removing it from the face of the earth would make a significant difference.

It's been fun for me to research this article. I've had conversations with people in San Francisco, New York, London and Sydney. Some were CEOs of Java companies, some were developers; some CEOs had nothing to do with Java but were major users of large installations of Java.

I'm not going to quote anyone here as that wouldn't be fair, but let me just say that it was easy to spot which companies didn't want to bite the hand that fed them. The ones proclaiming it wouldn't make a bit of difference were found to like Microsoft that little bit too much. The ones who said it would make a difference were the ones that had no alliance or allegiance to Microsoft at all. Not exactly hard science, you understand, but like I said, the answers I gleaned did make me chortle at times.

But It's a Game. It's Unrealistic. Or Is It?
Who remembers that brilliant movie It's a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart? Do you remember the storyline? Basically it's about a man, George Bailey (James Stewart), who's got to the end of his tether and wants to commit suicide. This is because all his life he's been trying to run a business under the constant strain of the mean Mr. Potter, the richest man in the county. Mr. Potter is determined to put George out of business and tries a number of tricks. Finally George gives up and can't see a way forward.

Do you remember what happens? Clarence, his guardian angel, comes down and shows him a world without George. The town is no longer called Bedford Falls but Pottersville. Everything is owned and controlled by Mr. Potter and the place is in a right old mess. So, in good old movie tradition, George sees the error of his ways, returns to his old life and discovers that the whole town has rallied around to help him out. It's a sweet story, but one that I couldn't help but see has some parallels for our own.

In our world we have Mr. Gates, who would be Mr. Potter, with Scott McNealy taking on the James Stewart role. With that in mind pick up a copy of the film and watch it again. The movie takes on a completely new meaning. Especially the scene where Mr. Potter tries to buy George off. Considering the current events in the media with Sun and Microsoft, it hits a recognizable note.

This dream has turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. A silly off-the-cuff remark sparked a whole lot of dialog that got everyone I was in contact with thinking about the bigger picture. Bottom line: if Microsoft got control of Java, it would lose one of its basic fundamentals - the ability to "write once, run anywhere." We as Java developers and keepers of the faith simply can't let this happen.

More Stories By Alan Williamson

Alan Williamson is widely recognized as an early expert on Cloud Computing, he is Co-Founder of aw2.0 Ltd, a software company specializing in deploying software solutions within Cloud networks. Alan is a Sun Java Champion and creator of OpenBlueDragon (an open source Java CFML runtime engine). With many books, articles and speaking engagements under his belt, Alan likes to talk passionately about what can be done TODAY and not get caught up in the marketing hype of TOMORROW. Follow his blog, or e-mail him at cloud(at)

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