A brief introduction to the history, rise and future of Java

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A brief introduction to the history, rise and future of Java

Simple, robust, portable, platform-independent, secure, object-oriented, and dynamic. Upon coming across such a string of words, we are likely hard-pressed to think of one entity alone—the Java programming language. That is a testament to how ubiquitous the Oracle-owned Java, created by James Gosling and colleagues at Sun Microsystem back in 1991, has become in the 21st century. Today, Java is used to program anything from desktop computing and mobile applications to games and enterprise software.

When Java broke into the tech landscape in the mid-90s, hardly any language possessed its wide-ranging capabilities. To begin with, Java had a virtual machine of its own, making it capable of being run on multiple platforms. This flexibility made it an instant favorite for coders. Java also came with the famous JIT compiler, which could automatically minimize errors and optimize performance, even while working with poorly written code. Furthermore, its strong type-safety improved programming correctness, making it the go-to language for large-scale projects.

Nevertheless, Java has consistently faced criticism from the tech industry throughout its evolution despite these robust features. The most persistent and significant among them is the amount of clutter it produces—Java might require the input of highly verbose code to accomplish specific everyday tasks. Additionally, Java's handling of unsigned numbers, buggy implementation of floating-point arithmetic, and the security vulnerabilities of its virtual machine, among other things, have all received flak from its detractors.

And when it came to rectifying such problems, Java has taken its own sweet time. Its immense popularity intensified the inertia. Java had little incentive to make significant improvements to its inventory since there was hardly any worthy competitor insight for a long time.

It was perhaps only after the turn of the millennium when newer JVM-run languages began emerging that Java's developers seriously took to fixing these gaps. Scala, released in 2004, was the first among the new JVM languages to unsettle Java's monopoly in the programming inlet. Scala's focus on functional programming, its declarative approach, and innovative advancements such as introducing immutable objects, made it highly popular within a short period. Java responded to Scala's rising popularity with newer features, including the introduction of Lambdas and Streams in 2014. These features not only improved Java's overall functionality and legibility but also helped it recapture the market in the years that followed. The popularity of another language Clojure, released in 2007, owing mainly to its use of pure functions and simplicity, also gave Java's developers food for thought and new directions to think in.  

Nevertheless, it is another language released only as recently as 2016 credited for really pushing Java out of its comfort zone—Kotlin. Designed by the Czech software company JetBrains, Kotlin can fully interoperate with Java. It has been designed to retain the best of Java while disposing of most of its flaws; the excess vocabulary, in particular. And the best part, Kotlin's clear-stated goal is to eliminate as much clutter as possible from Java.

Understandably Kotlin's popularity grew steadily until a couple of years ago. It has slightly stagnated since developers at Oracle took stock of its innovations and introduced similar functional improvements. Experts have opined that some of the new features released in the latest Java Development Kit—JDK 15—have been directly inspired by Kotlin's. These include Java Records, a new Switch statement, and text blocks, among others.

Kotlin's radical approach to programming, its relatively non-taxing learning curve, and intelligent design helped revitalize the coding community's openness to learning new languages in a short period. But more importantly, it has also managed to give Java regular and healthy competition. Moreover, Kotlin's focus on the readability of its codebase has been credited for enhancing team productivity as it disposes of a heap of clutter and improves clarity. Google recently adopted Kotlin as the language of choice for Android app development, indicating a bright future for the language if it continues to stay ahead of the curve.

Yet, even with solid competitors like Kotlin growing in popularity, Java's influence looms like a leviathan over the programming world. According to a survey conducted in the latter half of 2019 by Snyk Programming Tools Company, 86.6% of practitioners prefer Java to other JVM languages. With its developers intent on bringing newer and improved features in upcoming releases—JDK 17 to be released in 2021 being the latest announcement—Java is all set to make a comeback more vital than ever, despite its sluggishness to innovate.

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