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"The world doesn't need another object-oriented language." At the time Java got its start, it was easy to dismiss the language as unnecessary, just like industry analyst John R. Rymer did when he was first introduced to Java while working at Giga Information Group, at a time when SmallTalk and C++ were "really big deals." And yet, the Java language—and the enterprise platform built on it—would go on to become important parts of the enterprise technology stack for many years.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the enterprise Java platform and we are celebrating the occasion by looking back at its impact on the world, from J2EE under Sun Microsystems and its years as Java EE under Oracle, through today as Jakarta EE under the stewardship of the Eclipse Foundation. We have highlighted innovations, milestones and thoughts on where the platform is heading in the future, and today want to share personal reflections from colleagues and members of the broader community who have not only been impacted by it, but have helped to shape it along the way. For some, such as Rymer, who today serves as vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, Inc., the enterprise Java story is full of twists and turns, and begins even before the platform came into existence.

Getting their start: Java (the language) in the web era

The Java programming language was born in the mid-90s, just as the World Wide Web was starting to gain momentum. "We were dealing with a lot of new information about the web," says Rymer. "There was a lot of discussion about browsers, the new HTTP protocol, and there was a lot of new technology coming along. Very few people recognized it for what it was, which was a new era in software."

For Mark Little, involvement in Java, and then, J2EE, was a natural evolution of the work he was already doing on distributed transactional object systems as part of a research group at Newcastle University. "Java came along at the right time for me and many of my colleagues. We'd been spending a lot of time working on C++, which was becoming the dominant object-oriented language," he recalls. However, as enterprises started to take notice of both Java and the web, the research group pivoted to the new language and eventually spun their work out of the University to build a business around it.

At the time, Little, who currently serves as vice president of Middleware Engineering at Red Hat, was heavily involved in work with the Object Management Group (OMG) around transactions, and was the University's representative on the Object Transaction Service (OTS) specification, as well as the Chair of the Additional Structuring Mechanisms for the OTS working group and specification. "When Java came along, and then J2EE, the vendors at the time ensured that Java was a language mapping in the OMG so it was supported in CORBA—the most successful cross-vendor middleware platform at the time. Therefore, it wasn't surprising that J2EE was heavily influenced by CORBA initially. My participation grew from there."

Andrew Binstock, a long-time market analyst and current editor of Java Magazine, saw a natural fit for Java when the language first arrived. "It was promising what seemed to be this incredibly elusive thing in UNIX at the time, which was portability." He saw Java emerging as a replacement for fourth-generation programming languages (4GL), which were the predominant means for writing portable applications at the time.

Binstock wasn't alone in recognizing Java's potential from the outset. Maureen Fleming, an
industry analyst, heard about Java as soon as it was announced by Sun, and later began to dig deeper by taking night classes at a local college. By that time "Java was considered an 'advanced' or upper-level topic and not the core entry level programming class of computer science," she notes.

"I started learning Java the day it was publicly announced," says John Clingan, who credits this experience with helping him become the product manager for Java EE years later. Today, he is heavily involved in the enterprise Java community and serves as a product manager for Java-related products at Red Hat and is a committer to the MicroProfile project. "Java hasn't just given me career opportunities, it has become my career!"

The early optimism around the Java language stands in contrast to what Binstock observed in the early days of the enterprise Java platform. "There were a couple of things going on at that time that made me wonder whether J2EE was going to catch on," he says, noting that the complexity and newness of the technology were imposing. "It was completely new conceptually and it took a long time to figure out exactly what all these pieces did, how they fit together, how you were supposed to craft applications for it. It was almost an entire discipline unto itself that seemed in many ways far removed from the Java we had known for the last few years."

In the face of these challenges, Binstock notes that the enterprise Java community flourished, ultimately driving the success of the platform. "When Java first came out, it wasn't clear at all that J2EE would be the big winner. But that has turned out to be where the sweet spot of Java is – in the enterprise."

Strength in numbers: growing the enterprise Java community

Since its introduction in 1999, a large community has grown around enterprise Java, bringing new ideas and innovations to the platform along the way. Fleming has seen how different members of the community have contributed and influenced the platform over the years, including vendors who build products in Java, and those "who want to see Java change in different ways…introducing new frameworks and approaches." This, she notes, is "often done in cooperation with enterprises experiencing a similar evolving need."

Indeed, as the ecosystem surrounding enterprise Java grew it opened doors to new innovation and development on the platform. Red Hat's Jason Greene has worked with enterprise Java as a user and contributor. Today the distinguished engineer is working on what he believes to be the next generation of Java applications in the cloud: the open source project, Quarkus. Greene believes this work is possible because the technology and ecosystem around enterprise Java "created significant opportunity for innovation and growth," he shares. "I believe it was the Java community's embrace of open source and open standards that ultimately led to this rich environment of creativity and collaboration."

RedMonk's principal analyst and co-founder Stephen O'Grady agrees. "The defining characteristic of Java to me, in fact, isn't the technology itself, but the community that sprang up around it. Without that community, and the many individuals and organizations behind it, it never would have become the force that it did."

Today, the community continues to play an important role in shaping the future of enterprise Java, whether it is work on the Jakarta EE platform with the Eclipse Foundation or, like Greene and Clingan, contributing to open source projects such as Quarkus and MicroProfile.

Editor's note: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individuals who contributed to it and not those of their respective employers.