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The father of Java gets tough; James Gosling on Microsoft, Java

Nov 04, 2000, 16:40 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Mark Samuels)

By Mark Samuels, VNU Net

Some skills and achievements look better on CVs than others. James Gosling, vice-president and fellow of Sun Microsystems, can add a pretty good bullet-point to his career history: 'Creator of the Java programming language.'

More recently, he's been directing his attention towards Mr Gates and the monolithic Microsoft Corporation. He's put those famous pictures of Gates receiving a pie in the face on his website. More importantly, Gosling was one of the 12 witnesses at the Microsoft trial.

The video tapes of Gates giving his deposition are "appalling", says Gosling. "To imagine that a man who is the chief executive of a major corporation, and the richest man in the world, could put on a performance like that is unbelievable."

Gosling sees the trial itself as a cathartic experience. He says that two years ago, the IT industry lived in terror - largely for fear of retribution from Microsoft.

"It was always like an unspoken dirty secret, [people would say] 'Microsoft, they're our valued partner'," explains Gosling. "But give an IT manager a few beers and they'll admit: 'Shit, they ****** us so badly'!"

Throughout the trial, Gosling says, the deep, dark secrets of Microsoft's behaviour became available and he encourages all IT experts to read the findings and the facts documented in the case.

He remains unconvinced, however, that the US government will easily beat Microsoft's legal appeal.

Growing up
Success and Gosling meanwhile have been intertwined throughout his career. Born in 1956 and brought up in Western Canada, the young Gosling spent most of his time on his grandfather's junkyard, tinkering with steam-tractors. From steam, he progressed to electronics.

"The engineer was always there in me - it wasn't as if somebody introduced me to that," says Gosling. "I grew up in a family that didn't have a lot of money, and most of the electronics I did was from diving into people's trash cans and getting old phones and things, and building stuff out of that."

Life changed at the age of 13 when a friend of his father's took him on a tour of the local university. Here, Gosling was introduced to the computer centre - and as he only lived three miles away, he became a frequent visitor.

"I kept walking over there and I learnt how to break in," he says. "The computer centre doors had these little combination locks on them, and I got real good at punching those codes in."

Within a year, Gosling had his feet under the desk and was working part-time on research projects at the university. Working among the physicians, Gosling was being paid money to write software - and greatly enjoyed it.

"I skipped a lot of classes at high school going over to the university," admits Gosling. "But by and large, my high school instructors were pretty cool about it because most people were skipping class to go off and do drugs, and here I was, writing software for satellite ground stations."

Rewarding times
Despite these gaps in his formal education, Gosling received a bachelor degree in computer science in 1977 from the University of Calgary and, six years later, a doctorate in computer science from Carnegie-Mellon University. While he was there he developed one of the first multi-processor Unix operating systems.

After working in the IBM Research Labs, Gosling moved to Sun Microsystems in 1984, where he worked on the NeWS Unix-based window system and the original Unix Emacs editor. Then, of course, he developed Java.

"It was a rush," says Gosling of being the father of the Java programming language in 1991. "It's a really tremendous feeling having people come up to you randomly in the street or hall and say 'Wow, you really made my life a whole lot better'."

Gosling says that most people draw specific attention to the portability of skills. Rather than being tied to specific hardware, software engineers can write Java code and work end-to-end - for S/390, Solaris and Linux, for example.

Despite the success of Java, Gosling remains unconvinced by the corporate work ethic.

"The number of people who behave like assholes, well it's universal. It doesn't matter where you go, there they are. So you're going to have to make peace with that," he says.

As part of this peace pact, he confirmed that the ownership of Java would not follow the open source pattern of the Linux community. Gosling has passed Java on to a range of responsible carers but retains a passionate interest in his baby.

For now, he keeps himself busy with work around the possibilities for new tools for Compaq's Alpha processor. But who knows what's next. "When will I stop?" Gosling asks. "When I stop breathing. It's still a lot of fun."

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