Why Is Java Interesting?
A Simple Example
When it was introduced in late 1995, Java took the Internet by storm. Java 1.1, released in early 1997, nearly doubles the speed of the Java interpreter and includes many important new features. With the addition of APIs to support database access, remote objects, an object component model, internationalization, printing, encryption, digital signatures, and many other technologies, Java is now poised to take the rest of the programming world by storm.
Despite all the hype surrounding Java and the new features of Java 1.1, it's important to remember that at its core, Java is just a programming language, like many others, and its APIs are just class libraries, like those of other languages. What is interesting about Java, and thus the source of much of the hype, is that it has a number of important features that make it ideally suited for programming in the heavily networked, heterogenous world of the late 1990s. The rest of this chapter describes those interesting features of Java and demonstrates some simple Java code. Chapter 4, What's New in Java 1.1 explores the new features that have been added to version 1.1 of the Java API.
In one of their early papers about the language, Sun described Java as follows:
Java: A simple, object-oriented, distributed, interpreted, robust, secure, architecture neutral, portable, high-performance, multithreaded, and dynamic language.
Sun acknowledges that this is quite a string of buzzwords, but the fact is that, for the most part, they aptly describe the language. In order to understand why Java is so interesting, let's take a look at the language features behind the buzzwords.
Java is an object-oriented programming language. As a programmer, this means that you focus on the data in your application and methods that manipulate that data, rather than thinking strictly in terms of procedures. If you're accustomed to procedure-based programming in C, you may find that you need to change how you design your programs when you use Java. Once you see how powerful this new paradigm is, however, you'll quickly adjust to it.
In an object-oriented system, a class is a collection of data and methods that operate on that data. Taken together, the data and methods describe the state and behavior of an object. Classes are arranged in a hierarchy, so that a subclass can inherit behavior from its superclass. A class hierarchy always has a root class; this is a class with very general behavior.
Java comes with an extensive set of classes, arranged in packages, that you can use in your programs. For example, Java provides classes that create graphical user interface components (the java.awt package), classes that handle input and output (the java.io package), and classes that support networking functionality (the java.net package). The Object class (in the java.lang package) serves as the root of the Java class hierarchy.
Unlike C++, Java was designed to be object-oriented from the ground up. Most things in Java are objects; the primitive numeric, character, and boolean types are the only exceptions. Strings are represented by objects in Java, as are other important language constructs like threads. A class is the basic unit of compilation and of execution in Java; all Java programs are classes.
While Java is designed to look like C++, you'll find that Java removes many of the complexities of that language. If you are a C++ programmer, you'll want to study the object-oriented constructs in Java carefully. Although the syntax is often similar to C++, the behavior is not nearly so analogous. For a complete description of the object-oriented features of Java, see Chapter 3, Classes and Objects in Java.
Java is an an interpreted language: the Java compiler generates byte-codes for the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), rather than native machine code. To actually run a Java program, you use the Java interpreter to execute the compiled byte-codes. Because Java byte-codes are platform-independent, Java programs can run on any platform that the JVM (the interpreter and run-time system) has been ported to.
In an interpreted environment, the standard "link" phase of program development pretty much vanishes. If Java has a link phase at all, it is only the process of loading new classes into the environment, which is an incremental, lightweight process that occurs at run-time. This is in contrast with the slower and more cumbersome compile-link-run cycle of languages like C and C++.
Because Java programs are compiled to an architecture neutral byte-code format, a Java application can run on any system, as long as that system implements the Java Virtual Machine. This is a particularly important for applications distributed over the Internet or other heterogenous networks. But the architecture neutral approach is useful beyond the scope of network-based applications. As an application developer in today's software market, you probably want to develop versions of your application that can run on PCs, Macs, and UNIX workstations. With multiple flavors of UNIX, Windows 95, and Windows NT on the PC, and the new PowerPC Macintosh, it is becoming increasingly difficult to produce software for all of the possible platforms. If you write your application in Java, however, it can run on all platforms.
The fact that Java is interpreted and defines a standard, architecture neutral, byte-code format is one big part of being portable. But Java goes even further, by making sure that there are no "implementation-dependent" aspects of the language specification. For example, Java explicitly specifies the size of each of the primitive data types, as well as its arithmetic behavior. This differs from C, for example, in which an int type can be 16, 32, or 64 bits long depending on the platform.
While it is technically possible to write non-portable programs in Java, it is relatively easy to avoid the few platform-dependencies that are exposed by the Java API and write truly portable or "pure" Java programs. Sun's new "100% Pure Java" program helps developers ensure (and certify) that their code is portable. Programmers need only to make simple efforts to avoid non-portable pitfalls in order to live up to Sun's trademarked motto "Write Once, Run Anywhere."
Java is a dynamic language. Any Java class can be loaded into a running Java interpreter at any time. These dynamically loaded classes can then be dynamically instantiated. Native code libraries can also be dynamically loaded. Classes in Java are represented by the Class class; you can dynamically obtain information about a class at run-time. This is especially true in Java 1.1, with the addition of the Reflection API, which is introduced in Chapter 12, Reflection.
Java is also called a distributed language. This means, simply, that it provides a lot of high-level support for networking. For example, the URL class and OArelated classes in the java.net package make it almost as easy to read a remote file or resource as it is to read a local file. Similarly, in Java 1.1, the Remote Method Invocation (RMI) API allows a Java program to invoke methods of remote Java objects, as if they were local objects. (Java also provides traditional lower-level networking support, including datagrams and stream-based connections through sockets.)
The distributed nature of Java really shines when combined with its dynamic class loading capabilities. Together, these features make it possible for a Java interpreter to download and run code from across the Internet. (As we'll see below, Java implements strong security measures to be sure that this can be done safely.) This is what happens when a Web browser downloads and runs a Java applet, for example. Scenarios can be more complicated than this, however. Imagine a multi-media word processor written in Java. When this program is asked to display some type of data that it has never encountered before, it might dynamically download a class from the network that can parse the data, and then dynamically download another class (probably a Java "bean") that can display the data within a compound document. A program like this uses distributed resources on the network to dynamically grow and adapt to the needs of its user.
Java is a simple language. The Java designers were trying to create a language that a programmer could learn quickly, so the number of language constructs has been kept relatively small. Another design goal was to make the language look familiar to a majority of programmers, for ease of migration. If you are a C or C++ programmer, you'll find that Java uses many of the same language constructs as C and C++.
In order to keep the language both small and familiar, the Java designers removed a number of features available in C and C++. These features are mostly ones that led to poor programming practices or were rarely used. For example, Java does not support the goto statement; instead, it provides labelled break and continue statements and exception handling. Java does not use header files and it eliminates the C preprocessor. Because Java is object-oriented, C constructs like struct and union have been removed. Java also eliminates the operator overloading and multiple inheritance features of C++.
Perhaps the most important simplification, however, is that