|Newsletter for e-Business consultants and practitioners||March-April 1999|
Is Java a viable solution for E-Commerce?
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Java can be used for private e-commerce solutions or on the server side. Using it as a front-end or to create elements of the Web design in many cases will lead to a large share of your visitors unable to view your pages as designed.
When Java came to the light, there were expectations that it will become a major player in the Internet front-ends and Web design. It was almost impossible to doubt that without seriously harming your own professional reputation. Now, when even captains of the industry accept that there were some overexpectations, it may be possible to look to the problem from another side.
One of the most important features of Internet is a highly geterogenous character of this new media. In particular it concerns Web browser - client side end of the Web technology. At the dawn of Java on the Internet, practically no browsers supported it. The few new versions which did were hardly covering the majority of Internet users. Therefore, a Web page with an applet was doomed 90% of time to show the "Sorry, your browser does not support Java" message. However, Java advocates were answering: "We don't care, let them upgrade their browsers!" Though it's hardly a reasonable approach, it was reasonable to suppose that enough customers will get their upgrade in a time of fruitless arguing about if the approach was really reasonable. Wasn't it?
To answer this question we conducted a research over the internet. It showed that during 1998 the share of Java disabled old browsers was stable but low (only 2-3 percent). Of course it is still a question of how many of the rest of the browsers were used with Java off. However, people who bothered to turn Java off are most of all the same people who would hate to pass their personal information over the Internet. Therefore, this should not affect the target question of this research (we don't care about people who would not buy even if they would run Java). After a few years the assumption of Java advocates really became true: we can ignore people who don't have Java enabled browsers--but can we really use Java?
Yes and no. Besides the question of a Java support we have a question: "What exact version is supported?" Simply put, there are three major versions of Java (or more precisely JDK) now: 1.0, 1.1 and newest 1.2. If you create an applet in 1.1 it will not run on 1.0 because some methods and classes will be missed. The same with 1.2 and 1.1. It may look like we can write aplcations in JDK 1.0 and assume that they will run in 1.1 and 1.2. However while Java is (mostly) cross-platform compatible it is not completely cross-version compatible. Either we speak about upward or downward compatibility. Namely applets written with JDK 1.0 may start to behave differently in virtual machine with JDK 1.1 or 1.2 libraries. Sometimes they can behave differently because of the vitual machine itself. One of the examples is floating-point numbers conversion to string representation, which may affect the way applets show numbers on the screen. Imagine that your shopping cart started to show the "Total" with ten decimal digits after the decimal point. Isn't it scary? Of course there are styles in programming which can eliminate such effects if you know what to avoid, however, this requires substantially higher efforts and substantially higher level of programmers. Therefore, increasing the whole cost of a project.
Maybe it is possible to ignore browsers with JDK 1.0 just like we ignored Java-disabled browesers? Unfortunately, this is not the case. The same research showed that the number of browsers with Java 1.0 gradually decreased in the first half of 1998 from 69% to about 30-35% and after that stablized on the level. So approximately one third of your potential customers need 1.0 compliant code. It is interesting that this proportion is about the same for Netscape Navigator/Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers. Approximately 1/3 of Netscape users have Java 1.0, and about 1/3 of MS IE users still did not upgraded to 1.1.
This is a contradiction with the fact that all the newest development tools support 1.1 or even 1.2 versions. The newest tool means higher productivity, however, they cannot be used for front-ends and Web design of public or semi-public (like book club's) sites.
Of course this does not mean that Java cannot be used at all. There are at least two cases when it may be a viable decision. These are highly private environments or the server side.
In a highly private environment when you have a limited number of customers and can determine what particular browser they will use, it is possible. One of the examples, an e-commerce solution to provides communications between large manufacturers and dealer networks. Dealers (usually) may be required to set up a particular browser to run the front-end of the business system. It still will cover more platforms than front-ends created in Visual Basic or Delphi. However, this is apparently not what was expected when Java was announced as #1 Internet language.
Another case when Java and the latest versions of Java can be used is the server side. Currently there are "servlets" (simmilar to "applets") technology which allows writing server-side Java code very similar to common CGI programs. As an advatage servlets usually have a support which makes them closer to Windows DLL-based CGI or Unix Fast-CGI. Servlets don't consume performance on OS activity like start-up, closing, and even piping
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