"Java is just another programming language" - Microsoft. Of course, if Microsoft actually believed that, they wouldn't have gotten beat up in court for trying to destroy it.
Java is the first major environment designed to run efficiently on networks, including the Internet. It is designed to support centralized and distributed computing, and to run on everything from a toaster (literally) to a supercomputer.
A prominent feature of Java is "write once, run anywhere". While a goal, not a fact at this time, Java is moving steadily in that direction. Java programs can run fine on a Windows computer - but they don't require Windows. The same program can run just as happily on OS/2, Unix, Linux, MacOS, BeOS, VMS, MVS, AmigaDOS, or on a computer or device not running a full function operating system at all (an NC, or a toaster). This is what so concerns Microsoft about Java, because acceptance of Java makes Windows irrelevant, and without Windows there is no Microsoft.
This is the world computing is moving to, especially after the costly failure of the Windows based Client-Server computing model. Data centers are being concentrated again, and often are based on Internet technologies. Instead of "one size fits all" Windows PCs on every desktop, a number of more specialized devices are appearing, many requiring no operating system at all, just a Web browser. Java supports this environment.
Java is already being deployed on a major scale by large corporations, and is quickly filtering down to programs used in smaller companies. Java is being strongly promoted by IBM, Sun Microsystems and Oracle, a rather "industrial strength" group. Java based transition environments like Tarantella are making it possible to bring older applications into this new realm.
Java Enterprise Beans is a collection of Java business modules (supported in particular by IBM) that can be incorporated within new Java programs to promote business standards and greatly reduce the cost of development.
Jini is Sun Microsystems' Java based network environment. On a Jini based network, lets say you add a new printer. When attached and turned on the printer will automatically register its availability and list it's capabilities on a central server. If an application decides this printer meets it's needs, it will automatically be handed the proper printer driver when it asks to print. Coming soon to a planet near you.
Microsoft's effort to "poison Java" (their words) by convincing developers to use "Windows only" Java tools and libraries was hailed as certain to succeed by the computer press. In actual fact it failed. Few developers ever used Microsoft's tools for very obvious reasons. If you wanted to do cross platform development, you couldn't use them safely. If you were programming only for Windows, other languages provided better performance.
"Poisoning Java" landed Microsoft in court in a major case brought by Java's developer, Sun Microsystems, and Microsoft lost the case badly. Microsoft is now exiled from Java development and is only allowed to distribute a hoplessly obsolete version of Java for the next 7 years.
Because Java defines the way computing will be done in the new era, Microsoft had to develop an imitation of Java called C# (pronounced C Sharp).
Despite victory in court, all is not yet comple happiness in the Java camp.
We expect all this will get shaken out in the long term. Java is simply too important, especially for use in countering Microsoft's .NET initiative.
You can get a lot more information about Java directly from the source at java.sun.com.
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