The key to Java's widespread appeal is its promise of "platform-neutral" computing. As the Java ads put it (in a trademarked slogan): "Write Once, Run Anywhere."
The issue of adapting software to multiple computing platforms is a difficult and important one. Today, a program intended to reach a broad audience needs versions for the Macintosh, Windows 95, Windows 3.1, Windows NT, OS/2, at least a few varieties of Unix, and perhaps other systems as well. For the programmer, it’s a logistic nightmare.
And it's not just a programmer's problem. For the ordinary consumer, too, the multiplicity of platforms has costs and risks. It means the software you buy today may have to be replaced if you switch platforms next year. Files you create on one system may not be readable on another. And, inevitably, some programs are simply not available for all platforms.
The compatibility quandary has been with us from the beginning of computing—or at least from the moment the second computer was booted up. But lately the problem has come to be seen as more urgent. The reason is the Internet and the client-server model of computing.
If you are browsing the World Wide Web, it takes only a click of the mouse to transfer a page of text from a remote machine (the server) to your own computer (the client). Downloading an image is equally easy, or a sound file, an animation, a video clip. So why not click on a link to have the browser download and run a program? After all, the machines at both ends of the communications channel are computers. Running programs is what they do best. If you can read words, look at pictures, listen to music and watch TV over the Internet, surely you should be able to run programs too.
It’s important to be clear about the nature of the transaction proposed here. Many common events on the Web cause a program to be run—but it runs on the server. For example, searching for a topic on AltaVista or one of the other Web index sites initiates a database query on the server machine. Sometimes it would be better to execute a program on the client computer. Running an interactive game or simulation on the server might overtax both the server itself and the communications channel. Downloading the program code and running it locally could make the software much more efficient and responsive.
The problem, of course, is figuring out what program code to download. Every client platform requires an entirely different instruction format; code for an Intel Pentium processor is nonsense to a PowerPC. Even if multiple versions of the software were kept on hand—like spare parts for various makes of automobiles—the server might not be able to identify the client, and so wouldn’t know which version to send.
Another potential problem with downloading executable software is security. A program on a malicious Web site might offer to make you a millionaire but actually clean out your bank account. Prudent computers don't accept programs from strangers these days.
Java addresses both of these issues. Whereas programs in most other languages are compiled into instructions for a specific processor, Java programs are translated into platform-independent "byte codes." The byte codes are then interpreted by a "virtual machine," which generally takes the form of software running on a conventional computer. The same sequence of byte codes can run on any computer for which there is a virtual machine.
The safety of a Java program is assured in two ways. First, the virtual machine is constructed as a kind of padded room, isolated from the rest of the system, where even a program run amok cannot do much harm. Second, the incoming byte codes are examined by a "verifier" before they are executed, and any program found to break the rules is rejected.
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