Jan 11, 2009

Is Java relevant?

My previous post made me think about my attitude towards Java. Even if it happens to be behind its pinnacle, is Java any good beyond paying my bills for years? If we know what Java gave this world probably we will be better equipped to decide when to move to a new language and how to judge it.

History teaches us that non-technical aspects matter more than what is habitually referred to as technical excellence. Which is actually difficult to define. I have a growing suspicion that what matters a lot is something I would call, for a lack of standard term, "age and experience demographics". The idea is that certain technologies are perceived to be cool by people entering the field. Those technologies in a sense create an imprint on that particular generation.

As an example, in the early nineties Assembly was for real men and C++ for real programmers. At least how I felt it back then under certain circumstances (no influence from CS-savvy people, and extremely limited literature in the absence of the Internet, most people using and targeting MSFT platform). I know that years before I discovered computers people had been writing in HEX code and considered Assembly to be unmanly. It very well may be that nowadays something like scripting/dynamic languages are all the rage among the young.

There must be also a heavy influence of experience resulting in some kind of "shifting interest curve". You need to be through a complete life cycle of a major language such as Java to be able to see that not everyting is new under the sun. As an example of a self-made developer, I have progressed through Pascal, C++, OOP, OOA&D, RUP, UML, Java, algoritms and data structures 101, development methodologies, software architecture, really understanding OOA&D, really understanding Java concurency, TDD (disclaimer: for simplicity sake the sequence was artificially serialized and stripped of many things).

Right now I value good analysis and design (assuming OOA&D; I am not aware of FP/dynamic language alternatives to it; and yes, I appreciate UML) and best software engineering practices more than a particular language. I like reading about algorithms much more than I did ten years ago. I am dabbling with FP in its safely diluted incarnation (Scala) and planning to look again at Erlang later next year. Who knows, probably in my next ten years I will be able to get interested and even like highbrow stuff such as LISP. The point is that in addition to normal technological progress each individual has another learning curve which includes things not affected directly by his current job.

And last but not least, not everyone majored in CS. As a matter of fact, I believe I have worked with more people from Engineering/Physics backgrounds than properly educated CS graduates. Naturally, the former were not indoctrinated in seemingly non-practical subjects such as LISP, FP or even the details of compiler design. Some of those are probably later picked in spare time but I would still expect a gap between originally CS and non-CS folks.

So, what do I like about Java? I happen to maintain an Apache module written in C and every time I fix a bug there I appreciate our warm and fuzzy Java world more. This juxtaposition elucidates good things about Java although by no means it is even remotely scientific or exhaustive. Disclamer: borders between Java the language, the JVM and Java ecosystem at large are blurred to reflect real life.
  • Java has a standard API (or a de facto standard API) for nearly everything. And innumerate open-source implementations of those.
  • Java has multiple open-source components available for anything from reliable messaging and IoC to web UI and Map/Reduce on serious scale.
  • We have a set of widespread mature technologies covering most important mundane areas (e.g. Maven/Spring/JUnit)
  • Java has a memory model and an amazing util.concurrent library. It was Doug Lea and not James Gosling who was my youth hero :) And Brian Goetz wrote really nice javadocs :)
  • Java has a decent Collections libraryJava dominates the server side. Jobs are abundant in interesting domains from Finance to Telecommunications
  • Java promotes OOP and interface-based design. Not really design by contract though :(
  • Because Java is a dumbed-down language, it is easy to read (well, multi-screeen methods are still found out there but I guess you catch my drift). Though I have always missed overloaded operators and proper generics (enabling the STL library in C++).
  • Nowadays there are enough high-quality Java books
  • Without IntelliJ IDEA I would go out, shoot myself in the foot and die :)
  • Java does not look weird (presumably in comparison with the C branch of evolution)
Most of us would be able to continue this list for a long time. When I look at it the point seems to be indeed that it is not about Java the language. Libraries and the JVM sneak into the picture all the time. As a creature of habit I like Java because I am used to it but if a JVM language more sophisticated than Java comes along I would be all for it.

Harking back to Scala, the language looks smart to me (yes, I am enamored with C++ like complexity and things like covariant/contravariant type annotations attract me rather than scare away). I detest languages that restrict me (Java more than C++, Erlang more than Scala). I cannot imagine living with a language where I would not be able to do OOP even if I like the idea of trying out at least elements of FP. And Martin reminds meBjarne more than others do :)

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