SUN MICROSYSTEMS HAD a problem on its hands. One of the company's brightest software developers had created a new computer-programming language called Oak that nobody seemed to want. Originally designed for writing control software for the computer chips that run microwave ovens and other state-of-the-art household appliances, it had been reconfigured several times over the past five years--for cable-TV set-top boxes, for video-game machines, for personal computer CD-ROMS. But every time it looked as if Oak might finally find a home, the deal somehow fell through. Even its name was a problem: it couldn't be protected by trademark because hundreds of companies had already used it. In the end, Sun decided that the best thing it could do for Oak was to give it a new name and give it away. So Sun called it Java--a slang term for coffee that dates back to the days when the best brews came from Indonesia, not Seattle--and made it available, free of charge, on the Internet.
Seven months later, to everybody's surprise--including Sun's--Java is the hottest thing in cyberspace. More than 100,000 copies have been downloaded by software developers eager to try out the new language, which promises to make sending programs across a computer network as easy as sending E-mail or pictures. Hundreds of little Java applications (dubbed "applets") have started to pop up on the World Wide Web, the multimedia portion of the Internet. One site lists more than 700 working Java applets--each only a mouse click away--that generate everything from small dancing cartoon figures and steaming cups of coffee to knock-offs of such games as Pac-Man and Missile Command. Several leading venues on the Internet, including c|net and Time Warner's Pathfinder, now use Java applets with links to the wire services to display live news tickers running across the screen.
But Java is more than a way to spice up the pages of the World Wide Web. The news tickers and dancing cartoons are just the most visible signs of a deeper, more profound change. Although today Java matters only to programmers, it could in the next few years shift the balance of power in the entire computer industry, changing not only the cost and shape of the machines on our desktops but also our very concept of what a computer should be.
With Java, data and programs--the twin staples of computing--don't have to be stored on your computer anymore. They can reside anywhere on the Internet, called up by whoever needs them, whenever they need them. It's a development that could finally make true Sun's original and hitherto cryptic slogan: The Network Is the Computer. "There's a paradigm shift every 10 or 15 years," says Marc Andreessen, a Web pioneer and co-founder of Netscape Communications. "And we're in one right now."