Bell Labs developing rival to Sun's Java on-line language

Rohit Khare (
Thu, 15 Feb 96 20:04:30 -0500



As a developer of the C language, a Java ancestor, Dennis Ritchie would be
uniquely qualified to head a group creating a new on-line language.

Bell Labs developing rival
to Sun's Java on-line language

Top scientists involved in secret crash project

Published: Feb. 15, 1996

Mercury News Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- For the past nine months, some of the AT&T Bell Labs
researchers credited with the development of the Unix operating system have
been working on a secret crash project: creating a rival version of Sun
Microsystems' Java , an on-line-oriented language that brings sophisticated
programming tools to the World Wide Web.

The project, code-named Inferno, is of such importance that the Bell Labs
group put a major ongoing research effort, a successor to Unix known as ''Plan
9,'' on the back burner, and roped in most of the unit's 10 or so scientists
to work on it.

Ritchie mentioned project

Dennis Ritchie, a legend in the Unix world for his role in creating both Unix
and the C programming language, made a brief reference to the undertaking
Tuesday night in a speech at the UniForum trade show here. He discussed the
matter further, if somewhat reluctantly, in an interview.

While noting that Java has been the beneficiary of ''a lot of hype,'' Ritchie
said the underlying idea behind Java was compelling, and said he did not want
to criticize Sun's work. But he said he worried that Java had become too
large and complex; he also suggested that any Bell Labs version would be
useful in a wider variety of machines, including future versions of television

''Java does not go far enough,'' he said.

Lively contest?

Should Bell Labs' work find its way into a commercial product -- something
that is by no means certain, if only because AT&T is expected to soon join the
growing list of Java licensees -- it could make for a lively contest for
high-end, Internet-oriented programming languages, a category Sun had been
presumed to own.

That's because while Sun has for itself one of the industry's best technical
reputations, that's even truer for Murray Hill, N.J.-based Bell Labs ,
considered one of the world's pre-eminent research organizations. The facility
has numerous major advances in computing to its credit, as well as such
fundamental inventions as the transistor and the laser.

And as a developer of the C language, a Java ancestor, Ritchie would be
uniquely qualified to head a group creating a new on-line language.

Sun introduced Java last year as a way of bringing the power of full-blown
computer programming to the World Wide Web. In an extraordinary rush of
enthusiasm about Java, many people viewed it as a kind of one-stop,
all-purpose software tool that would allow Web site developers to easily add
such features as animation to their pages.

Java, though, is in fact a quite complex computer language that is beyond the
technical ability of the great majority of people working on Web pages. And
as that fact has sunk in during recent weeks, Sun has become more deliberate
in describing Java. It is now careful to say, for example, that Java's main
appeal will be to professional computer programmers developing sophisticated
applications, and that most people wishing to publish ''content'' on the Web
will probably use other tools.

Still, because Bell Labs has a long-term, even theoretical approach to
computing that is presumably immune to industry fads, its interest in a
Java-like language is yet another indication of the profound manner in which
the growth of the Internet is affecting the thinking of nearly everyone
involved with computers.

Ritchie did not say how far along the Inferno work had proceeded, and
indicated no decision had been made about whether it would be taken to the
marketplace as a product. He did say, though, that top management of AT&T has
been keenly interested from the beginning.

Any uncertainty about the ''Inferno'' project is compounded by the fact that
Bell Labs is about to undergo a major change, as a result of last year's
break-up of AT&T into three companies.

Ritchie's group, along with most of the lab, soon will belong to Lucent
Technologies, which has been set up to sell AT&T's equipment business,
including telephones and high-end switching equipment. And the new company is
still developing its business plan and strategy.

For its part, Sun said the interest in Java by a computer scientist of
Ritchie's caliber was a vindication of Sun's basic ideas about the technology.

''He could have said it's a load of hooey,'' said Tim Lindholm, of the Java
development team. ''The fact that he's taking it seriously justifies the
notion that Java is a viable story.''

Ritchie suggested that AT&T had decided to not invite Sun to collaborate. But
Lindholm said Sun would nonetheless like to pay a visit. ''It would be
interesting to hear what ideas they have,'' he said. ''Java is not a done
deal. We intend to continue developing it.''

While he was only hearing about the Bell Labs effort for the first time,
Lindholm disputed Ritchie's technical criticism of Java, saying Sun would be
delivering many varieties of it for use in many different systems.

Ritchie's appearance in San Francisco was in connection with the first public
discussion of Plan 9, a new post-Unix operating system from his group that is
named after the cult science fiction movie.

An early version of Plan 9 has been released to the technical community.
Ritchie said t additional development on Plan 9 was put aside because of

(1996 Mercury Center.