Activator gets thumbs up from Java community

But some express concern with technical details of the software

By Stephanie Steenbergen and Robert McMillan

December  1997
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San Francisco (December 12, 1997) -- Sun Microsystems' new Activator software, announced this week at Internet World in New York, is meeting with a favorable response from the Java community.

"Thank you Sun, I love you and want to have your babies," wrote one ecstatic developer on the discussion group, soon after Sun announced the software.

Java Activator lets Web browsers use Sun's Java Runtime Environment rather than the browser's underlying Java Virtual Machine.

Industry observers say Activator could threaten Microsoft's attempt to create its own version of the Java platform by replacing Internet Explorer JVMs with those provided by Sun.

Microsoft was skeptical about Activator's impact. According to one company spokesperson, "Switching out Microsoft VM which is fully integrated with the browser for a VM that actually performs less-well and has less functionality is just not something we imagine users would want to do."

Rick Ross, a Java developer and president of the Java Lobby advocacy group, thinks Java Activator is great because it will make it possible for developers to create platform neutral Java solutions. "As a developer one of the things I'm looking for is one Java," he says.

According to J.P. Morgenthal, president of analyst firm NC.Focus, Activator is a good move for Sun. He says "`Write once run anywhere' works because Sun deploys all the answers." But he wonders if the software will raise licensing issues for Sun's Java Virtual Machine, saying, "Why do I want to pay [Sun] for licensing of a Java VM anymore? There are definitely some issues of licensing that I will want to query both Netscape and Microsoft on."

Debby Meredith, senior vice president of strategic technologies and products at Netscape, brushes off suggestions that Activator would have an impact on her company's licensing arrangement with Sun.

For Meredith, the key benefit of activator is that it will allow users of pre JDK 1.1 Netscape browsers to update their virtual machines. And, she says, it's good for [Internet Explorer] users "constrained by Microsoft's non-compatible Java strategy."


"Hacky" HTML
But while developers may agree, in principle, with the idea of preserving Java's "write once run anywhere" purity, some were cool on the technical details behind Activator.

Developers expressed concern with the download time and "hacky" HTML. Richard Smith, president of Phar Lap Software Inc., says he hopes Activator has a "cancel download" option.

Representatives from Sun could not say whether or not Activator has this option.

"I'm a little cautious with it too," says Ross, "because there is a requirement for Webmasters to make some modifications to their HTML for Activator to work. It will do it automatically, but it would be even better if it was totally transparent. Something that the user could put on the user side."

What are these modifications? Smith, after checking out Activator at Internet World, explains the process like this: "[Activator] is intended to be used by a Web site developer before pages are uploaded to a Web server. It is a Windows program that reads in a bunch of HTML files and adds the extra stuff to the page for Activator."

Smith says this "stuff" includes a bit of JavaScript code which determines if a page is being loaded by Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator. For Internet Explorer the utility adds an ActiveX control to the page to redirect Explorer to use the Sun JVM instead of the Microsoft JVM. And for Netscape, the utility inserts a plugin on the HTML page to redirect the browser to use the Sun JVM and to download Activator.

Though Microsoft has called Activator "Big Brother technology" Java Lobby's Ross sees nothing nefarious about it. He says, "In no way does Activator breech the security assumptions of Java. Java makes very extreme security assumptions for your protection, and Activator is completely compatible with it."

Activator is available for free on the Sun Web site.


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