How Java Changed the Internet
The Internet helped catapult Java to the forefront of programming, and Java, in turn, had a profound effect on the Internet. In addition to simplifying web programming in general, Java innovated a new type of networked program called the applet that changed the way the online world thought about content. Java also addressed some of the thorniest issues associated with the Internet: portability and security. Let’s look more closely at each of these.
An applet is a special kind of Java program that is designed to be transmitted over the Internet and automatically executed by a Java-compatible web browser. Furthermore, an applet is downloaded on demand, without further interaction with the user. If the user clicks a link that contains an applet, the applet will be automatically downloaded and run in the browser. Applets are intended to be small programs. They are typically used to display data provided by the server, handle user input, or provide simple functions, such as a loan calculator, that execute locally, rather than on the server. In essence, the applet allows some functionality to be moved from the server to the client.
The creation of the applet changed Internet programming because it expanded the universe of objects that can move about freely in cyberspace. In general, there are two very broad categories of objects that are transmitted between the server and the client: passive information and dynamic, active programs. For example, when you read your e-mail, you are viewing passive data. Even when you download a program, the program’s code is still only passive data until you execute it. By contrast, the applet is a dynamic, self-executing program. Such a program is an active agent on the client computer, yet it is initiated by the server.
As desirable as dynamic, networked programs are, they also present serious problems in the areas of security and portability. Obviously, a program that downloads and executes automatically on the client computer must be prevented from doing harm. It must also be able to run in a variety of different environments and under different operating systems.
As you will see, Java solved these problems in an effective and elegant way. Let’s look a bit more closely at each.
As you are likely aware, every time you download a “normal” program, you are taking a risk, because the code you are downloading might contain a virus, Trojan horse, or other harmful code. At the core of the problem is the fact that malicious code can cause its damage because it has gained unauthorized access to system resources. For example, a virus program might gather private information, such as credit card numbers, bank account balances, and passwords, by searching the contents of your computer’s local file system. In order for Java to enable applets to be downloaded and executed on the client computer safely, it was necessary to prevent an applet from launching such an attack.
Java achieved this protection by confining an applet to the Java execution environment and not allowing it access to other parts of the computer. (You will see how this is accomplished shortly.) The ability to download applets with confidence that no harm will be done and that no security will be breached may have been the single most innovative aspect of Java.
Portability is a major aspect of the Internet because there are many different types of computers and operating systems connected to it. If a Java program were to be run on virtually any computer connected to the Internet, there needed to be some way to enable that program to execute on different systems. For example, in the case of an applet, the same applet must be able to be downloaded and executed by the wide variety of CPUs, operating systems, and browsers connected to the Internet. It is not practical to have different versions of the applet for different computers. The same code must work on all computers. Therefore, some means of generating portable executable code was needed. As you will soon see, the same mechanism that helps ensure security also helps create portability.
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