Foundational programming language Java is celebrating its 25th birthday this year, further cementing 1995 as an auspicious year for the tech world. The internet and dozens of corresponding technological advances were emerging that year as unparalleled sources of culture and financial wealth, paving the way for much of what exists today.
Rich Sharples, senior director of product management at Red Hat, put Java and its birth-year brethren in context, explaining how the programming language and others have been able to stand the test of time.
“They’re all dependent on adoption and ecosystem. These are all technologies where it matters that you have that cumulative advantage. These are not niche technologies and that’s why they’re all survivors,” Sharples said. “They were pioneers in categories that survived. It all comes down to, very early on, whether you are first or second, getting the early advantage, building the ecosystem of developer or content creators around it and maintaining that.”
SEE: The 10 most significant tech products released in 1995 (TechRepublic)
Sharples spoke to TechRepublic about Java and seven other of the most significant tech products that were either released or updated alongside Java in 1995, their impact on the industry, and the extent to which they have had and will have lasting impact on the industry and within business.
While many of these technologies went extinct or are no longer in use, each of these platforms was ground-breaking in its own way and taken as a whole, they are the ancestral equivalent of the way we now work, play and live.
Most modern internet users raised on Chrome, Firefox and Safari may not even know that Internet Explorer was once the de facto browser across the world. One of the key aspects of its rise also contributed to its downfall.
“I’ve been a web geek since Day 1 and I lived through the browser wars. It became successful not because it was better technology necessarily, but because they bundled it with Windows 95, which was the dominant desktop. At one point, Internet Explorer had like 95% of the market share. Fast-forward 25 years and it doesn’t even exist,” Sharples said.
“It’s quite remarkable to lose that position. I’d say it’s because they did create this false monopoly where they used bundling and that was litigated against and they weren’t able to do that. Things like Chrome and Firefox became free so the switching cost was low. You can only support so many browsers, either as a consumer or a web developer. There’s probably room for three browsers, maybe two these days.”
Microsoft stopped supporting most versions of Internet Explorer in 2016, well after it had lost its relevance in the browser market.
For a stretch of time DVDs were the dominant way people consumed movies at home, serving as a significant improvement to VHS tapes.
“At the time it was a bit of a breakthrough technology. The equivalent was incredibly expensive reel-to-reel high-end audio and video equipment that most people were not able to afford. DVDs came onto the market and were pretty inexpensive,” Sharples said, adding that in just a few years the market shifted to purely digital options, relegating most DVDs to people’s basements and attics.
“This all gave way extremely rapidly to digital because there was literally no switching cost. It’s very easy to switch to a pure digital format. That change was more about the radical technology changes, from VHS to DVD and then DVD to pure digital.”
Sharples explained that SSL started as a proprietary technology developed by Netscape but there really was nothing good enough on the market. While SSL had its flaws, the alternatives were much worse and no security was not an option.
“The real reason why SSL still lives in some sense is that it was standardized. It was standardized into TLS (transport layers security). And basically the entire industry had to get behind it. The browser developers, web server creators, content servers all had to comply with the same standard and that’s really the only way the web could work,” Sharples said.
“We’re at a significant fork in the road with things like quantum cryptography and the ability to break 128-bit encryption keys fairly readily. So even something as dependable and as long-lived as SSL could well go through a shakeup in the next five years. It could well be pushed aside for something else.”
Classmates.com was one of the many proto-social media sites that went extinct before seeing the kind of financial success and social importance as sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“I think it fell out of favor because it was too narrowly focused and frankly, bigger, better alternatives better meeting the needs of that audience came along. Social networks are a fascinating story because you have to start with a big audience fairly quickly to make it interesting for other people to join,” Sharples said. “Once you have that cumulative advantage, it’s very difficult to take it away. It would be very difficult for someone to take Twitter and Facebook on. You’ve got to do something pretty remarkable and different, something like TikTok or have a different spin on things.”
PlayStation has somehow been able to keep its foothold in the culture as one of the biggest gaming platforms. It is already prepping the release of PlayStation 5 and has had massive success over the last 25 years.
Part of its appeal was building a community of dedicated game developers and fan communities that have been able to keep hold for decades.
“Console games have the same kind of price tag as blockbuster movies these days. I’m not going to invest in a console that has no users. And if I’m a user, I’m not going to buy a console that has no games. You have to build that ecosystem before it’s attractive,” Sharples said.
“It is difficult to take on incumbency. It’s hard to come up with a significantly better technology.”
Of all the names on the list, Amazon is probably the most notable because of its current global dominance compared to its humble beginnings. The online bookstore was founded in 1994 but really gained speed in 1995 before changing dozens of times to keep with the market and evolve with the times.
“The Amazon story is quite impressive. Back in the day, it was competing with Webvan and people selling dog food on the internet. They took a much broader marketplace approach where they really weren’t selling. They sold books initially but very quickly they shifted to a marketplace where they were the marketplace and could sell anything on behalf of anybody,” Sharples said.
“That was their big shift, moving away from just an online book store to an ecosystem. And now their latest transition to essentially become a technology provider was amazing as well. They had a whole bunch of data centers that were built for peak capacity with a lot of idle time and they were able to sell that idle CPU network to other organizations who needed to use computer networks and storage for short intervals. That’s now probably going to be their dominant revenue stream.”
Most people probably have no idea what AltaVista is but it once controlled much of the market Google now has mastered. Google’s page ranking was a major breakthrough and one of many the company would make through its rise to search engine dominance.
“The market can only tolerate so many search engines. Google was a significantly better technology. AltaVista lost the ‘first mover’ advantage because technology came along that was much better and the switching costs are very low,” Sharples added.
“Google just became unstoppable and now it’s become a verb.”
Java has been able to stand the test of time for a number of reasons. Sharples said when Java was first developed, it was not an open standard. It was a proprietary technology that was cleverly licensed to other companies, allowing it to start off with a very broad ecosystem.
“It was significantly better than what came before it, both in terms of ease of use and its ability to support things like the World Wide Web and networks. It really was the first language to treat the network as a first class concern,” Sharples said.
“It met the market needs and it had market dominance very early because of this commercial licensing ecosystem. That gave it the cumulative advantage. There were more developers, therefore there were more tools and better support, more books written because of the number of developers and that created more developers attracted to the language because there was the readiness of books and getting-started guides.”
One key to Java’s success is that it is really good for a variety of things, while many programming languages are focused on being great at specific tasks or fields. As a more general language, it was able to shine and evolve constantly, going open source 12 years ago.
Sharples also noted that Java was adopted by Google as part of its mobile platform, creating more developer jobs and more apps written using Java, or slight variants of Java.
“It does some pretty phenomenal things and is a pretty amazing piece of technology,” Sharples said. “It can actually adapt and auto tune your application to make it faster and more efficient over time as it receives web requests or handles transactions.”
According to Sharples, languages like Java have so many applications and so many organizations completely dependent on the programming language, leading to high switching cost.
“I can’t just decide tomorrow that I’m going to take my billion lines of code and my 15,000 applications and move to another language. One of the reasons for Java’s early success was its similarity in terms of syntax to C++, which was the dominant language at the time. Programming languages and operating systems all move at glacial paces because the switching cost in general is so very high,” Sharples said.
Java is a good example of how technologies can get a foothold and then have long-term competitive advantages that compound over time.
The technologies that were able to build ecosystems around their tools and products found the most success long term and found ways to take advantage of their position.
“Things like Amazon and Java ensured they were satisfying the market need and not standing still or resting on their laurels,” Sharples noted.
“It’s got somewhere between seven and 11 million developers, so a lot of people are involved because it has that advantage of a readily hirable workforce with relatively inexpensive skills. There are not many technologies that are multigenerational, but I think the last Java developer probably hasn’t been born yet.”