Java: Back on top at 21

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Turning 21 is a pretty big deal. For most, a 21st birthday symbolizes promise ahead, along with many lessons learned from the past. Java’s 21st birthday—which just so happens to be this year—is no exception. So far, all evidence indicates that Java’s 21st year marks a big turning point. After more than two decades, Java is once again the No. 1 programming language and is one of the most in demand software skillsets. But like any major milestone, the road that led here has seen its share of ups and downs. Let’s take a look at how Java has grown over the years

A misunderstood childhood

Java’s first public release was back in 1995, and the journey began with both uncertainty and promise.  Java was very different from most of the mainstream programming languages of the day; just take a look at these fun facts:

  • Java is both a programming language and a platform
  • Java programs are compiled but can’t execute without a runtime
  • When programming in Java you explicitly allocate memory but you don’t have to clean it up

These are all things that seemed strange to many mainstream developers at the time.

When I first heard of Java, I asked why it’s designed the way it is. The answer I received was, “It was originally designed for programming high-end toasters.” The person who told me that wasn’t kidding but they were wrong. Java was originally targeted at embedded systems and digital consumer devices; however, the first project used to demonstrate Java was a handheld home entertainment system controller not a toaster.

Becoming the top dog

Java basically grew up alongside the widespread adoption of the Internet, and the Internet changed everything for Java. The strong support for networking features, ease of programming and relative platform independence made Java a great tool for developing applications that leveraged the Internet.

The inclusion of Java support in the Netscape Browser launched Java into a period of rapid adoption. As time went on, the inclusion of enterprise features as well as support for embedded and mobile systems fueled greater and greater adoption. By 2006, Java was ranked as the most widely used programming language. After just 11 years, it was surpassing other programming languages that were much older. Java had gone from birth to becoming the top dog in little more than a decade

Those awkward teenage years

Java remained on top for several years but then began to slip in popularity. For some reason Java just wasn’t cool anymore. A mistaken perception began to develop that Java was an old language that didn’t meet the demands of modern computers.  I recall reading a report from a major research company in 2014 advising organizations to move away from Java in favor of “newer more versatile” languages. A recommendation that turned out to be bad advice.

Determining the source of the misunderstandings that developed about Java is difficult. Fortunately, these misunderstandings were short lived.

Now, better than ever

After 21 years, Java is again receiving the recognition it has earned. Multiple sources again rank Java as the top programming language including both Inc. magazine and TIOBE Software. Along with this top ranking, Java provides more opportunity for software professionals than ever before. As the primary programming language for Android devices and one of the most widely used server computer programming languages, Java is an end-to-end solution running on literally billions of computers. Thanks to Java Micro Edition (Java ME), Java is also a critical part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Not only is Java a high-demand skill for software developers, according ADT magazine, it’s also considered one of the five most in demand skills for the rapidly growing field of data scientists, the folks responsible for working their way through all of that Big Data.

Growing up is never easy. The path is always filled with twists and turns, bumps and bruises. Such was the case for Java. But today, as Java turns 21, it’s a critical software skill for software professionals—whether working in the traditional fields of server-based and mobile software development or the rapidly growing fields of IoT and Big Data. Bottom line? Java is a full-stack tool that has come of age and is more valuable than ever. 

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Jim Wilson

Jim Wilson is president of JW Hedgehog Inc., a consulting firm specializing in solutions for the Android, iOS, and Microsoft platforms. He has over 30 years of software development experience with the last 13 years heavily focused on mobile and location-based solutions. He is author of several Pluralsight courses on Android app development and cross-platform iOS/Android app development. Jim’s latest book is Creating Dynamic UI with Android Fragments.