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Exploring Java

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1.7 Java and the World Wide Web

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

--Alice in Wonderland

The application-level safety features of Java make it possible to develop new kinds of applications not necessarily feasible before now. A Web browser that implements the Java run-time system can incorporate Java applets as executable content inside of documents. This means that Web pages can contain not only static hypertext information but also full-fledged interactive applications. The added potential for use of the WWW is enormous. A user can retrieve and use software simply by navigating with a Web browser. Formerly static information can be paired with portable software for interpreting and using the information. Instead of just providing some data for a spreadsheet, for example, a Web document might contain a fully functional spreadsheet application embedded within it that allows users to view and manipulate the information.

1.7.1 Applets

The term applet is used to mean a small, subordinate, or embeddable application. By embeddable, I mean it's designed to be run and used within the context of a larger system. In that sense, most programs are embedded within a computer's operating system. An operating system manages its native applications in a variety of ways: it starts, stops, suspends, and synchronizes applications; it provides them with certain standard resources; and it protects them from one another by partitioning their environments.

In this book, I'll be describing Java applets, which are Java applications meant to be embedded in and controlled by a larger application, such as a Java-enabled Web browser or an applet viewer. To include an applet as executable content in a Web document, you use a special HTML tag. The <applet> tag points to an applet and provides configuration information about the applet.

As far as the Web browser model is concerned, an applet is just another type of object to display. Browsers make a distinction between items presented inline and items anchored via hypertext links and made available by external means, such as a viewer or helper application. If you download an MPEG video clip, for instance, and your browser doesn't natively understand MPEG, it will look for a helper application (an MPEG player) to pass the information to. Java-enabled Web browsers generally execute applets inline, in the context of a particular document, as shown in Figure 1.4. However, less capable browsers could initially provide some support for Java applets through an external viewer.

Figure 1.4: Applets in a Web document

Figure 1.4

A Java applet is a compiled Java program, composed of classes just like any Java program. While a simple applet may consist of only a single class, most large applets should be broken into many classes. Each class is stored in a separate class file. The class files for an applet are retrieved from the network as they are needed. A large applet doesn't need to retrieve all its parts or all its data before beginning to interact with the user. Well-designed applets can take advantage of multithreading to wait for certain resources in the background, while performing other activities.

An applet has a four-part life cycle. When an applet is initially loaded by a Web browser, it's asked to initialize itself. The applet is then informed each time it's displayed and each time it's no longer visible to the user. Finally, the applet is told when it's no longer needed, so that it can clean up after itself. During its lifetime, an applet may start and suspend itself, do work, communicate with other applications, and interact with the Web browser.

Applets are autonomous programs, but they are confined within the walls of a Web browser or applet viewer, and have to play by its rules. I'll be discussing the details of what applets can and can't do as we explore features of the Java language. However, under the most conservative security policies, an applet can interact only with the user and can only communicate over the network with the host from which it originated. Other types of activities, like accessing files or interacting directly with outside applications, are typically prevented by the security manager that is part of the Web browser or applet viewer. But aside from these restrictions, there is no fundamental difference between a Java applet and a standalone Java application.

1.7.2 New Kinds of Applications

Sun's HotJava Web browser is written entirely in Java. Because it's a Java application, HotJava is immediately available on any platform with the Java run-time system. This goes a long way towards the goal of a Web browser serving as a universal access point for resources on the Net. Netscape has also announced that a future version of their Communicator client software will be rewritten in Java.

In addition to displaying Java applets as executable content in Web pages, the HotJava application is uniquely customizable. HotJava can be dynamically extended with Java code from the Net. HotJava uses protocol handlers and content handlers to provide this functionality.[5] Protocol handlers and content handlers are classes in the Java API that let an application implement new types of URLs and interpret the objects retrieved from them. A Web browser that supports this functionality could load handlers from a remote location and effectively upgrade itself on the fly to use new protocols and access new kinds of information.

[5] Downloadable content and protocol handlers are not supported in HotJava 1.0 but are promised in a future release.

Like applets, content handlers and protocol handlers can be served by a web site, along with the information they interpret. As an example, consider the new Portable Network Graphics (PNG) format, a freely distributable alternative to GIF. By supplying a PNG content handler along with PNG images on our server, we give users the ability to use the new image format, just as they would a built-in format. We don't have to create a new standard and force every Web browser to support the new format. Instead, the first time a user loads a document referencing a PNG image from our site, the Web browser will realize it doesn't understand the object and will ask the server if it has a content handler for it. Since we've provided a content handler, the browser can load it and then use it to interpret and display the image dynamically.

In a similar manner, protocol handlers allow a Web browser to start speaking a new protocol with the server. This is especially useful for things like security protocols. If we invent a revolutionary new cryptographic protocol late one night, all we have to do is implement it in the form of a protocol handler and place it on our server. We can then start using URLs that point through our new protocol at objects on our server, and people can immediately begin using it.

These scenarios describe just a few things that safe, transportable code will allow. We will undoubtedly see many other new breeds of application we can't even begin to anticipate.

1.7.3 New Kinds of Media

When it was first released, Java quickly achieved a reputation for multimedia capabilities. Frankly, this wasn't really deserved. At that point, Java provided facilities for doing simple animations and playing audio. You could animate and play audio simultaneously, though you couldn't synchronize the two. Still, this was a significant advance for the Web, and people thought it was pretty impressive.

JavaSoft is now working on real media features, which go far beyond anything that has yet been seen on the Web. This includes CD-quality sound, 3D animation, media players that synchronize audio and video, speech synthesis and recognition, and more. These new features aren't yet in Java 1.1 but will make their way into Java over the next 18 months. In short, if you were impressed by Java 1.0, you haven't seen anything yet. Java's multimedia capabilities will be taking shape over the next two years.

1.7.4 New Software Development Models

For some time now, people have been using visual development environments to develop user interfaces. These environments let you generate applications by moving components around on the screen, connecting components to each other, and so on. In short, designing a user interface is a lot more like drawing a picture than like writing code.

For visual development environments to work well, you need to be able to create reusable software components. That's what Java Beans are all about. The JavaBeans architecture defines a way to package software as reusable building blocks. A graphical development tool can figure out a component's capabilities, customize the component, and connect it to other components to build applications. JavaBeans takes the idea of graphical development a step further. Beans aren't limited to visible, user interface components: you can have Beans that are entirely invisible and whose job is purely computational. For example, you could have a Bean that did database access; you could connect this to a Bean that let the user request information from the database; and you could use another Bean to display the result. Or you could have a set of Beans that implement the functions in a mathematical library; you could then do numerical analysis by connecting different functions to each other. In either case, you could "write" programs without writing a single line of code. Granted, someone would have to write the Beans in the first place; but that's a much smaller task, and we expect markets to develop for "off the shelf" Bean collections.

Before it can use a Bean, an application builder must find out the Bean's capabilities. There are a few ways it can do this; the simplest is called "reflection." To write a Bean that uses reflection, all you need to do is follow some well-defined conventions (design patterns) that let the graphical interface builder (or any other tool that wants to do the work) analyze the Bean.

If they need to, Beans can provide additional information using a process called introspection. But even without introspection, a graphical development tool can analyze a Bean, figure out what it can do, and let a user change the Bean's properties without writing any code.

Of course, once a development tool has customized a Bean and connected it to other Beans, it needs a way to save the result. A process called "serialization" lets a tool save the Bean's current state, along with any extra code it has written to stitch Beans together in an application.

Visual development tools that support Java Beans include IBM's upcoming VisualAge, Borland's JBuilder (http://www.borland.com/), Symantec's Visual Cafe (http://www.symantec.com/), and SunSoft's Java Workshop. By using a "bridge," Java Beans will be able to function inside other component environments, including ActiveX, OpenDoc, and LiveConnect. A beta version of the ActiveX bridge is currently available.

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