Ted Neward on Java 8 adoption

Every once in a while, there is a moment in your life when inspiration just BAM! strikes out of nowhere, telling you what your next blog post is.

Then, there’s this one.

This blog post wasn’t inspired by any sort of bolt from the blue, or even a conversation with a buddy that led me to think, “Yeah, this is something that I should share with the world”. No, this one comes directly to you, from you. You see, I was cruising through my blog logs, and in particular looking at the Google Search queries that led to the blog site, and yesterday apparently two different Google Searches, both titled “Ted Neward on Java 8 adoption”, came in twice each.

I take that as a sign that y’all are kinda curious what my thoughts on Java 8 adoption are. Consider the message received: from your fingers to my eyes, as the old saying (slightly rephrased) goes.

Java 8: Overview

For those of you who’ve been too busy to track what’s going on with the Java language recently, the upcoming release of the JDK, the JavaSE 8 release, marks a fairly significant moment in Java’s history, one that ranks right up there with Java 5, in that the language is going to get a significant “bump” in functionality. Historically, Sun tried very hard to avoid such changes: Java 1.1 introduced inner classes, Java 1.4 introduced “assert”, and beyond that the language was the same language we’d been using since 1996 or so. The JVM saw some huge growth, by leaps and bounds, and the Java libraries grew exponentially, it seemed, but the language itself remained pretty static until Java 5. With Java 5 we got generics, enumerations, annotations, enhanced for loops, variable argument declarations, and a few other things besides; with Java 7 (the last release) we got a couple of trivial changes that really didn’t ruffle anybody’s hair, much less blow anybody’s socks off.

Java 8 represents another Java 5-like “sea change” kind of release. Not because there’s a ton of new features, like Java 5 had, but because the introduction of lambdas—anonymous function literals—will change a lot of the ways we can express concepts in Java, and that’s going to ripple throughout the language and the ecosystem. (Well, over time, it will—it’s hard to say exactly how much things will change in the days and months immediately following 8’s release.)

I won’t go into the details of Java 8’s new syntax—that’s not only still being finalized, but it’s also been pretty well-documented and discussed elsewhere (including a forthcoming Java Magazine issue from Oracle TechNet on the subject that’s been written by yours truly), and I only have a few minutes to write this in between flights home from a conference, to boot. For those who are familiar with lambdas, suffice to say that Java lambdas will look astonishingly like Scala or C# lambdas, partly because there’s really only a few ways you can make lambdas look in a C-style language, and partly because the folks writing the new features want the syntax to look familiar to programmers, and borrowing somebody else’s syntax (or at least big chunks of it) is a good way to do that.

Java 8: Adoption

When we talk about “adoption” of a given Java release, there’s a couple of different concepts we should tease out and examine individually: those customers who will deploy their non-Java8-written code on top of the Java8 JVM; those customers who will start using libraries written using Java8 features; and those customers who will start writing their own designs and implementations in the Java8 syntax and style.

Customers deploying Java8 for the JVM. Frankly, I expect this to happen relatively quickly, in line with the Java releases before this one. The JVM gets better and better with each release, and there’s no reason to assume that this release will be any different, and once Oracle and the JVM itself have demonstrated that there’s little to no risk to dropping the new JVM into the production data center and firing up your current version of JBoss or Tomcat or whatever on top of it, customers will begin to take a hard look at the risks involved in doing so (if any) and make that transition. It’s really a high-win-low-cost thing to do, again, once the Java8 JVM has some actual production miles under its belt, so to speak. (This isn’t a new rewrite of the JVM, by the way—customers just don’t want to be the first one to discover stupid bugs. My Dad once summarized this attitude this way: “Pilots never want to the fly the ‘A’ model of any aircraft.”) I give it about a year, maybe as early as six months, after the Java8 release before customers start putting Java8 into production.

Customers using libraries written using Java8 features. And let’s be clear, by “Java8 features” we’re talking about lambdas and virtual extension methods (a.k.a. “defender methods” from earlier draft specs), and by “libraries”, we’re talking about major open-source favorites like Spring, Hibernate, Commons Collections and so on. Essentially, the reason this is important as a category centers around the idea that Java developers, like a lot of developers, aren’t going to adopt the language features of the new Java until they see them in action—passing lambdas in to Spring for executing inside a database transaction, for example, or passing a lambda in to a collection for execution across a collection. The timeline here will be somewhat dependent on the library, and on the commitment of the developers around those libraries, but I’m a little less optimistic here—many of the open-source committers have historically been the loudest to cry foul over some of the changes Sun made to the language, and I’m not convinced yet that they have come around to embrace Oracle’s intentions regarding the language’s evolution. (In many ways, the image that strikes me is that of a large number of grumpy old men sitting around the office, gruffly tossing off one-liners like “Didn’t work like that in MY day” and “Don’t these kids realize that sometimes the old ways are the best ways?”.) I’m guessing that this transition will take longer, like two years at the minimum, and some libraries will never actually make the transition at all, choosing instead to remain “pre-Java8 compatible”, in the same way that some libraries chose to remain “pre-Java5 compatible” (and, IMHO, essentially put themselves out to pasture as a result).

Customers writing their own designs and implementations in Java8. And really, what I mean here is “how long before they start creating classes that utilize lambdas in the domain object design”? Interestingly enough, I think this is tangentially related to how quickly the open-source community adopts Java8 (the previous point), because then customers will begin to see some design patterns and idioms that they can copy/follow/embrace/extend, but even if the open-source community roundly rejects Java8, I still see customers starting to design and build code using lambdas by 2015 or ‘16. Some will jump on it early, or be able to transition their existing anonymous-inner-class-based (that is, “poor man’s lambda”) code over to lambdas within months of Java8’s release, but it will take longer to percolate through the rest of the industry—there are more than a few companies out there still running Java6, for example, and those folks aren’t going to accelerate their use of Java8 just to get lambdas.

Java 8: Perception

Having said all that, though, I think the overall perception of Java8’s adoption will be entirely dependent on how well Oracle addresses some of the recent “security flaws” that have been coming out of Java in the press. Even though the security flaws all seem to be applet- or client-side Java related, the perception that Java is somehow insecure likely has Microsoft chuckling internally—it certainly has Microsoft’s community (of which I and a number of my friends are a part) giggling and roaring and engaging in a few “Neener-neener-neener” moments; after all the crap that Java guys gave the Microsoft community back in the days of Bill Gates’ famous Security Memo, I can’t say that it’s unwarranted.

Aside from that, though, I think there’s no real reason not to expect adoption of Java8 to follow the same broad strokes path that previous Java releases have enjoyed, and thus within three years I fully expect that widescale adoption will be well under way.