Analysis of Apple’s Java bombshell

I heard about Apple’s deprecation of Java just as I was headed to BlizzCon this week and have spent some time over the past few days chewing on Apple’s move, their motives, and the ramifications.

The sky isn’t falling… yet.

Java 6 is currently quite well-support on OS X. Java 7 isn’t slated to be released until mid-2011, and there is usually a lag between when a new version of Java is released and when people are able to start using it. Apple’s Java releases have historically lagged behind Sun’s releases – sometimes by over a year. This obviously isn’t a terribly good situation, but it does mean there is a significant amount of time to at least achieve “business as usual” for Java on OS X.

There is also one bit of good news in the release – it looks like Apple is trying to accomodate third-party JVMs.


There has been a ton of speculation about why Apple is making this move – from pure business reasons, to Apple wanting to kill Java, to Apple wanting even more control over their entire platform. If I had to guess, I’d say it is a combination of #1 and #3. Apple is clearly moving Mac OS closer to iOS, and Java doesn’t really have a place in that transition. Apple would rather use resources dedicated to maintaining Java for Mac OS to do something that is closer to their long-term goals. Unfortunately, I think Sun is partly to blame for this – poor marketing and poor focus on desktop Java has made it largely irrelevant except for developers, which makes it easy for Apple to ignore it.

Don’t take it personally

Apple isn’t very sentimental about technology and they have nowhere near the emphasis on backwards compatibility that other companies (like Sun or Microsoft) have. They are pretty ruthless about abandoning technology when they feel it no longer helps them meet their goals.

Apple can kind of get away with this a little more because the majority of the products they sell are consumer-related with an expected lifespan that is very short. It is also part of their culture, however, and I think it helps them be successful. Backwards compatibility is a double-edged sword, and while it hurts when you are on the wrong side of it, I think Apple does a decent job of balancing it.

Is Mac OS going to become iOS with a keyboard and better hardware?

Looking at Apple’s history and what they are doing with iOS, there is good reason to wonder this. I think Apple definitely wants to move Mac OS closer to the model for iOS – it gives them a ton of control (which they like because, among other things, it allows them to create a better experience for most users) and because it gets them more money (by controlling application distribution, they can get a cut of each sale).

That said, I have doubts as to how far they will be able to take this. For one, there are legal issues – I think Apple is already playing with anti-trust fire right now with iOS, and total control of the desktop situation would sure be attract unwanted attention from the DOJ. More importantly, there are pragmatic issues. Developers, creative professionals, and other power-users would have a hard time working with a a crippled, locked-down Mac OS that some people are envisioning.

Does Apple need Java?

Obviously, Java isn’t critical to Apple’s success, but it is (and will continue to be) important to them for a few reasons. First off, Apple themselves use Java quite a bit for their server-side stuff – the Apple Online Store, the iTunes backend, and other systems. They’ll need to have some level of Java support in OS X in order to continue to support these systems, but I’m not sure how they intend to handle that.

A Java-less Mac OS also hurts sales of Mac hardware – not enough to seriously hurt Apple, but enough to make me wonder how much financial sense it makes for them to discontinue their support for Java. Apple typically utilizes small, effective teams, and I don’t think the team that supports Java at Apple is more than a handful of people, which means it can’t cost them more than a few million dollars to maintain Java. Judging by the number of MacBook Pros at JavaOne alone, this seems like a pretty effective investment – unless Apple thinks someone else will maintain Java enough to keep Java developers interested.

Does Java need Apple?

Probably, to some degree. Apple is doing a great job marketing the Mac OS platform and I think it is reasonable to assume it will continue to grow. If Oracle is concerned about getting traction in the consumer market with Java, then making sure there is a good JVM for Mac OS is going to be really important. On the developer side of things, I think it is also important for there to be good Java support on the Mac. There is already quite a bit of uncertainty and negativity around Java right now – JCP shenanigans going on right now, Oracle’s lawsuit against Google, and concerns about the pace of new features and releases. Losing support for a major platform like Mac OS would be another blow to a community that is already a bit unsettled right now.

Oracle hasn’t really shown much interest in the Mac platform and it will be interesting to see if they are willing to devote resources to keeping Java alive on it.

Where do we go from here?

I don’t think Apple is doing anything particularly nefarious here, even though the result appears to be somewhat unfortunate in the short-term. I think there opportunities for Oracle and other big members of the Java community to step up and fill the void that Apple is leaving. Perhaps in the long-run, this ends up being good news for Java on Mac OS? Apple generally did a decent job of providing Java on Mac OS, except that it was always well behind other platforms and Apple is notoriously bad about communicating their plans for Java – perhaps someone else would do a better job?

  1. Apple’s Port of Java Deprecated!! — Eatrocks - pingback on October 25, 2010 at 2:09 pm

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