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Why Java Is More Relevant Than Ever in the Mobile Age

Java, for all its faults, still provides what most developers need to get ahead in the world of coding

I was programming in C++ for a living when I fell in love with Java.

It was an unintended affair. At the time, I was following a trend with the limited language of C++, which didn't even have operator overloading or templates, but boasted simplicity and the ability to write the code once and run it anywhere (otherwise known as WORA).

But Java came along and changed everything. In fact, despite what most people say about Java in the mobile age, I still find it relevant, useful and an important coding tool going forward.

Java's WORA was much maligned during its early years, but people tend to forget how difficult things were before Java came along. Java was designed as a language of minimalism: There are less ways to accomplish a certain task, but that also makes it easy to go back in and make changes or corrections. With free and open tools, it made tackling the issues of platform defragmentation easier than ever.

Today, we are again experiencing defragmentation - but this time in the mobile space, with every device family moving further and further away from commonality and toward its own family of code. Java, as the most capable language used to support multiple platforms, is the closest thing to universal that developers can rely on.

Historically, tools for cross-platform mobile development in Java were in the $30,000 price range and delivered poor results. This is no longer the case. Tools from several vendors bring Java 5 functionality and native UIs without compromising on quality and ease of use. Companies and organizations such as Oracle, Codename One and XMLVM are bringing out stacks for Java developers to target some of the mobile platforms where Java hasn't been represented, and some of these solutions offer compelling UI options.

The leaders of the current crop of Java-based tools work by translating the Java bytecode to native C/Objective-C code and thus deliver fast native performance on iOS without an interpreter overhead (thus circumventing the JIT restriction on iOS). Some of the tools provide cloud build environments similar to the one provided by PhoneGap, removing the need to own a Mac to build a native iOS application. This allows casual developers who would like to get their feet wet programming to iOS/Android to get on board and leverage their existing Java skills to create native applications.

There are, of course, drawbacks to Java. Unfortunately, there is still no true alternative to it - HTML 5, which is the closest competitor, provides a vastly different programming experience and requires quite different skill sets. Android serves as a heaven of sort to Java developers in which they can easily develop using their favorite language; however, because the Android API is very specific to Android, the WORA aspect for Android only applies to other Android devices. RIM has its own flavor of Java and is working on supporting Android API in future OSs, but iOS/Windows phones don't have a proper alternative to Java developers.

There are several concurrent open source attempts to rectify this situation and restore the WORA aspect for mobile Java. Most of these attempts face an uphill battle since the platforms involved differ to such a great extent it's very hard to create a common ground that doesn't fall into the lowest common denominator approach.

For those who use these tools, make sure to check out their support forums, try out the options, evaluate their results and look through the application galleries. When building a mobile application the most important feature is the support forum - when things don't work, you need help, and in mobile development things can get pretty complicated along the way.

Developers who want simplicity and WORA capabilities in the mobile age may not have a lot of options. But Java, for all its faults, still provides what most developers need to get ahead in the world of coding. As cross-functionality becomes a greater priority for the coders, this baseline language will become the standard bearer yet again.

More Stories By Shai Almog

Shai Almog is CEO and Co-Founder of Codename One. He has been developing software professionally for over 20 years. He started specializing in Java in 1996 and most recently joined fellow veteran software developer, Chen Fishbein, to form Codename One, which allows Java developers to write mobile applications to all devices. Prior to this, Shai formed a consulting firm focused around Java development. Within this company Shai & his employees worked extensively with Sun Microsystems, IBM, Oracle, NTT DoCoMo, Sprint, Verizon, Vodafone, Nokia, Samsung, Major banks, government, institutions, startups and more.

Shai has vast experience in VM internals, UI, enterprise backend and almost every aspect of Java. He has worked on specifying and implementing Java VMs/APIs, building tools, end user applications, sites and much more.

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Most Recent Comments
pjmlp 01/31/13 09:37:00 AM EST

I fail to see any value in the current set of tools for Java development targeting the main mobile operating systems, because they are still too immature for production code.

Oracle should make ahead of time compilation a standard choice in Java tooling and not something that always force us to look elsewhere.

On the consulting projects I take part on, C++ and C# have taken the portability role for native applications, with HTML5 for the mobile ones.

The train has left the station for mobile Java and if Google decides to offer first class support for their own languages on Android (Dart and Go), then it is really gone.

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