AMONG JAVA'S MOST ENTHUSIASTIC SUPPORTERS IS a small but influential group of computer executives who see in the new programming language an almost visionary opportunity. With it, they believe, today's increasingly powerful and complex desktop machines can be replaced with something far simpler and a good deal cheaper.
The idea is straightforward. Instead of buying bigger and bigger hard drives to store programs that seem to grow more monstrous with every upgrade, why not let the Internet be your hard drive? The World Wide Web contains more data than you'll ever use. Java, in theory, can retrieve all the software you need when you need it. All your computer really has to have is a fast processor, a good Internet connection and a few built-in programs to handle E-mail and word processing. If the price is right, predicts Larry Ellison, chairman of software giant Oracle and one of the idea's chief promoters, "everyone will have one of these things."
To test his theory, Ellison has commissioned Acorn, a British computer maker, to help design a "networked computer" to his specifications, with a keyboard, a processor, some random-access memory, a communications link and not much else. Meanwhile, nearly every other major computer maker, from Apple to IBM, claims to have something similar in the works. Sun has teamed up with Japan's Fujitsu on a machine they are calling (not surprisingly) the "Java terminal."
How much would one of these babies cost? That depends on whom you ask. The price heard most often, from Ellison and others, is $500. Sun is less optimistic; company officials imagine their hot little Java boxes selling for somewhere between $500 and $1,000.
At that price, it's not clear what kind of market the new machines would attract. For $1,500 in post-Christmas sales, you can pick up a Windows or Macintosh computer that comes with loads of built-in software and hundreds of megabytes of storage, and that can also be hooked up to the net. Moreover, when your connection to the Internet goes down, these computers can still do useful work.
To some old-timers, the idea of a stripped-down desktop machine harks back to the days of bulky mainframes, when all data and software were stored on big, centrally located computers and users had only "dumb" terminals on their desktops, with little or no memory or processing power. Today the operative paradigm is the so-called client-server model, where data may be stored on big file servers but the software runs on real, full-powered desktop computers. Over the years, the pendulum swings back and forth between the decentralized desktop and the centralized machine. In this instance, the idea of a $500 computer is not so new after all.
Still, the concept of a radically simpler Internet machine does have a certain seductive appeal. An inexpensive Volkscomputer could bring online millions of people who can't afford today's PCs, offering them access and opportunities now beyond their reach. The stripped-down machines could also fit snugly into phone booths, airplane-seat backs and other public spaces, giving everybody ubiquitous access to the net.