Jimmy Gosling Said (I’m Irrelevant When You Compile)

Much renewed hope and delight last week, after Apple pulled back from its most audacious and appalling land-grabs in its iOS developer agreement, notably the revised section 3.3.1 that prohibited any languages but C, Objective-C, and C++ for iOS development (Daring Fireball quotes the important changes in full). Whether this is the result of magnanimity or regulatory pressures in the U.S. and Europe is unknowable and therefore unhelpful. What’s interesting is thinking about what we can do with our slightly-loosened shackles.

For example, it would be interesting to see if someone, perhaps a young man or lady with a mind for mischief or irony, could bring Google’s Go programming language to iOS development. Since the Go SDK runs on Mac and can compile for ARM, it might well be possible to have a build script call the Go compiler as needed. And of all the hot young languages, Go might be the most immediately applicable, as it is compiled, rather than interpreted.

And that brings up the other major change, the use of interpreters. Nobody seems to be noting that the change in section 3.3.2 is not just a loosening of this Spring’s anti-Flash campaign, but is in fact far more lenient than this policy has ever been. Since the public SDK came out in 2008, all forms of interpreted code have been forbidden. This is what dashed early plans to bring Java to the iPhone as an application runner, despite its absence as an applet runner in Safari. As Matt Drance has pointed out, the new policy reflects the reality on the ground that interpreters (especially Lua) have been tolerated for some time in games. The new phrasing forbids downloading of executable content, but allows for cases where the interpreter and all scripts are included in the app bundle. This has never been allowed before, and is a big deal.

Now let me stretch the definition of “interpreter” a bit, to the point where it includes virtual machines. After all, the line between the two is hard to define: a “virtual machine” is a design philosophy, not a technical trait. A VM uses an interpreter (often a byte code interpreter rather than source, but not necessarily), and presumably has more state and exposes more library APIs. But languages and their interpreters are getting bigger – Ruby I/O is in the language rather than in a library (like C or Java), but that doesn’t make Ruby a VM, does it?

You might have surmised where I’m going with this: I don’t think the revised section 3.3.2 bans a hypothetical port of the Flash or Java VMs to iOS anymore, if they’re in a bundle with the .swf or .jar files that they will execute.

I could be wrong, particularly given Steve Jobs’ stated contempt for these sorts of intermediary platforms. But if a .swf-and-Flash-VM bundle were rejected today, it would be by fiat, and not by the letter of section 3.3.2.

Whether any of this matters depends on whether anyone has stand-alone Flash applications (such as AIR apps) or Java applications that have value outside of a browser context, and are worth bringing to a mobile platform.


I can’t say why AIR never seemed to live up to its billing, but the failings of Desktop Java can in part be blamed on massive neglect by Sun, exacerbated by internecine developer skirmishes. Swing, the over-arching Java UI toolkit, was plagued by problems of complexity and performance when it was introduced in the late 90’s, problems that were never addressed. It’s nigh impossible to identify any meaningful changes to the API following its inclusion in Java 1.2 in 1998. Meanwhile, the IBM-funded Eclipse foundation tied their SWT more tightly to native widgets, but it was no more successful than Swing, at least in terms of producing meaningful apps. Each standard powers one IDE, one music-stealing client, and precious little else.

So, aside from the debatability of section 3.3.2, and wounded egos in the Flash and Java camps, the biggest impediment to using a “code plus VM” porting approach may be the fact that there just isn’t much worth porting in the first place.

Speaking of Desktop Java, the Java Posse’s Joe Nuxoll comes incredibly close to saying something that everybody in that camp needs to hear. In the latest episode, at 18:10, he says “…gaining some control over the future of mobile Java which, it’s over, it’s Android, it’s done.” He later repeats this assertion that Android is already the only form of mobile Java that matters, and gets agreement from the rest of the group (though Tor Norbye, an Oracle employee, can’t comment on this discussion of the Oracle/Google lawsuit, and may disagree). And this does seem obvious: Android, coupled with the rise of the smartphone, has rendered Java ME irrelevant (to say nothing of JavaFX Mobile, which seems stillborn at this point).

But then at 20:40, Joe makes the big claim that gets missed: “Think of it [Android] as Desktop Java for the new desktop.” Implicit in this is the idea that tablets are going to eat the lunch of traditional desktops and laptops, and those tablets that aren’t iPads will likely be Android-based. That makes Android the desktop Java API of the future, because not only have Swing, SWT, and JavaFX failed, but the entire desktop model is likely threatened by mobile devices. There are already more important, quality, well-known Android apps after two years than the desktop Java APIs produced in over a decade. Joe implies, but does not say, what should be obvious: all the Java mobile and desktop APIs are dead, and any non-server Java work of any relevance in the future will be done in Android.

No wonder Oracle is suing for a piece of it.

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Comment (1)

  1. It took nearly a month, but I finally thought of some Java/Flash codebases which would be well worth bringing to iOS: browser-based MMO games, like Runescape, Puzzle Pirates, TinierMe, etc. That said, I’m concerned about CPU, considering that TinierMe absolutely pegged two of my 8 cores when I tried it:

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