Sun to Bridge the Java Skills Gap

Fighting off competition from all angles, the company will offer varying versions of its developer tools that address the needs of the code guru as well as the newbie.

Sun Microsystems Wednesday said it plans on simplifying its developer world by dividing it into two groups: highly-skilled code masters that live and breathe Java... and the rest of us.

The Santa Clara, Calif.-based network computer maker said it plans on shifting the way it approaches the people who write applications with Java starting with its annual developer's conference in San Francisco this June.

The company said the initiative will filter through its Sun ONE Studio product line through a combination of new easy to use development tools, APIs, platform definitions and other resources for the Java community.

Tipping its hand just a bit on how its Java strategy will play out next month, Sun said it will be hone in on three areas: mobility, Web services, and the enterprise.

"One of the key focal points is what Java means to developers and what we are doing to make the ease of development possible," Sun vice president Rich Green said during a conference call to analysts and the press. "A lot of our thinking is a level of what Java is being used for. In the case of highly skilled developers, that is where our community level programs will be.

Sun said it is set to roll out advances in the next 6 to 12 months for the expert crowd in a way that does not remove them from the details of the Java language.

"When we construct these tools, we want to make sure that the developers stay in touch with the code," Green said.

Green stopped short of calling the not-so-highly skilled developers "low skilled" but conceded that there is a very wide range of people programming in Java whose principle job is not software development.

"I think certainly, you would agree that millions of folks are out there who are not necessarily creating J2EE-scalable applications," Green said. "They're creating lightweight applications. That's a group of individuals that have been slower to come to the Java platform than others."

While keeping the specific plan under wraps, Green did admit at least two versions of Sun's development tools would be coming out. The platform would contain the same baseline elements but packaged with functions that target specific markets.

"There are more and more people who are streaming into this space where they can build applications that click the notch up of complexity, but that places greater pressure on the developer," Green said.

Part of the push to simplify is Sun's master plan to increase the developer base to 10 million in the near term. Currently, Sun boasts about 3 million Java developers worldwide.

"That requires us thinking in ways of getting to that goal," said Sun Director of Strategic Marketing Ingrid Van Den Hoogen. "I don't think there is an issue of 'late to market at all,' but we realize the next level to double the number of developers there has to be new audiences that we provide support for."

At its core, Java is an object-oriented language similar to C++, but simplified to eliminate language features that cause common programming errors. Java source code files (files with a .java extension) are compiled into a format called bytecode (files with a .class extension), which can then be executed by a Java interpreter. Compiled Java code can run on most computers because Java interpreters and runtime environments, known as Java Virtual Machines (VMs), exist for most operating systems, including UNIX, the Macintosh OS, and Windows. Bytecode can also be converted directly into machine language instructions by a just-in-time compiler (JIT).

The language is simple enough that it is taught in high schools, but because it runs so many back end and edge applications, Sun Fellow and Vice President James Gosling likened it to something we all take for granted.

"It's like breathing oxygen," Gosling said. "You don't think about it very much except when you look at what people are doing in cell phones and set top boxes and massive multiplayer games and gas stations. We put in an enormous amount of time taking large-scale problems and making them practical that we've tended to not pay attention to the smaller straight forward applications."

The shift in strategy comes at a time when Sun is taking hits from all sides of the fence on its Java platform. The company acknowledges the threat from developers leaning towards Microsoft and its Visual Studio .NET tools, but Sun is also facing levels of fragmentation within the Java community including offerings by JBoss, IBM's WebSphere and Rational divisions, BEA , Borland and Jini are all looking to make Java more accessible to the masses.

As previously reported, Sun plans on releasing a second beta version of its J2EE version 1.4 during the Java ONE show. The revised beta adds in the WS-I extensions to build Web services platform. Pending a trial run, Van Den Hoogen said it was a matter of time after that before the latest J2EE spec was officially released.

Sun also said the upcoming Java ONE conference will debut a new online aspect in a virtual show format where developers could reference sessions and continue to add content throughout the year.

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