So why doesn’t Java matter on the desktop?

Yeah, someone busted me on actually failing to answer that question. So, a highly opinionated set of my observations.

In the interim years between which the Java promise was made and broken (again I’m only talking about the shrink wrap Application market here), there have been a number of other tools and technologies that have come along to make the whole WORA point not terribly interesting.

Beyond the development tools on the major platforms maturing significantly, there is also better support for building cross platform non-GUI code. Scripting languages are more easily integrated now than ever before, creating a high level portable solution for implementation of a good chunk of applications. Similarly, the support for C++ (and, really, Objective-C) in cross-platform environments has matured significantly in that write-once-run-anywhere-with-the-right-compiler-flags is a commonly used paradigm these days.

As well, the approach with which software is developed has matured. Developers recognize the value of separating user interface code from their data containment code. Model-view-controller is an obvious and commonly used design pattern that does exactly that. There are other design patterns that achieve the same goal. It is also interesting to note that the growing popularity of unit testing naturally leads to a better separation of user vs. non-user functionality simply because it is so difficult to unit test user interfaces (that is what functional and acceptance testing is all about).

And the tools available for separating data from user interface have also matured significantly. Beyond design patterns, there are now a number of tools that vastly simplify client/server style communications (even when a network connection isn’t really involved– SQLite, for example). Use of client/server also naturally leads to a stronger separation between the platform specific user interface code and the platform agnostic data management and core functionality.

So, while the Java market was largely focused upon providing solutions– some awesomely powerful– for developing internet related or internal/vertical applications, the rest of the market was not sitting around.

Likewise, the platform specific development models have advanced significantly. On Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux/BSD/X, there are many relatively new tools and APIs that make pumping data into a user interface both a heck of a lot simpler (fewer lines of code) while also enabling the ability to create custom visualization tools that are strongly tied to the native APIs. Certainly, Java is providing support for a similar mechanisms via some of the newer APIs, but the development experience still lacks the tightly bound fluidity of using tools designed specifically for the platform.

There have also been a number of APIs and technologies built that also promise write-once-run-anywhere style solutions for cross platform deployment. While all suffer from similar look and feel problems as Java based solutions, there are some very high quality solutions in this space that often have significant advantages over Java — smaller installation footprint, less overhead, simpler development, or some combination therein.

So, as a result of both the significant advancements in platform specific technologies and in the cross-platform tools market, Java is simply yet another solution to an already solved problem.

All of the above combined means that Java just won’t matter on the desktop unless it can offer a compellingly superior solution to some set of problems. At the moment, Java does not.

The Java specific IDEs are really powerful, but none offer truly compelling user interface development tools.

While writing cross-platform non-UI specific code is both easy and quite attractive with Java, cross-platform GUI code really doesn’t exist without sacrificing the quality of UI that can only be had with native tools. That, combined with the increasing quality and simplicity of tools such as wx*, TK, or a number of commercial products (Real Basic, Runtime Revolution, etc..) for cross platform development further dilutes Java’s potential.

Given the discussed roadmap of Java these days, it doesn’t look like Sun — or anyone else — is really putting up much of a fight for the desktop.

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