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James Gosling on Java, May 2001
A Conversation with Java's Creator, James Gosling
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, June 2001

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The Complexity Challenge

Bill Venners: In several recent interviews, you claim that the main challenge for programmers is complexity. Can you elaborate?

James Gosling: In some sense, that's what this tool I am building is all about. How do you write a complex application? How do you deal with an application that's a million lines long? How do you even come close to understanding it? How do you make a change to a system like that? How can you cope with it?

Another axis of complexity exists as you lay the application out on a network. One of the things that Java is good at is giving you this homogeneous view of a reality that's usually very heterogeneous. One of the things going gangbusters recently is the cell phone business. The last time I heard a number, it was like 60,000 Java cell phones were being shipped every day. The numbers have become staggering. And that's not the highest volume Java platform. The highest is actually smart cards, and that's a really big number, although I don't know the exact number.

People building these applications that span the network from edge to center to edge, where you have part of the application in whatever the edge device is -- whether it's desktop or cell phone or PDA -- some bits and pieces in the infrastructure, and some bits and pieces in the back ends and the databases. One person can work from end to end, but how do you manage the complexity of that?

We don't have really good ways to deal with that issue. We just barely have tools that let us look at what one system is doing and map that across an end-to-end architecture. There are people who have these embedded debuggers for dealing with things like J2ME devices. How do you debug code that's inside your Oracle database? How do you look at the whole thing in totality? That's the hard and interesting problem. The systems being built get more and more complicated every day.

I spent a lot of time a couple of years ago on the whole real-time effort. The motivation for that came entirely from the real-time community. The main issue was that programmers are not writing a few thousand lines of assembly code anymore. These systems are getting really huge. And Java has proven to be pretty successful in building large reliable systems.

Bill Venners: I'm glad I asked that question because I thought you might have been talking more about the complexity of large, monolithic programs.

James Gosling: Yes, even isolated things. Some of these isolated applications that sit on one machine are a million lines of code. How do you deal with that? Most people have no way to wrap their head around it. There are all kinds of tools available, from organizational tool you get from object-oriented methodology, to some of the tools that are based on that, like UML modeling.

But of course the more tools you build to cope with such complexity, the more complex things become. We always strain at the limits of our ability to comprehend the artifacts we construct -- and that's true for software and for skyscrapers.

Bill Venners: Increasing complexity is also being driven by hardware that's getting cheaper and more powerful.

James Gosling: Absolutely. One of my favorite lines is that computers are driven by Moore's Law, which is an exponential process, and human beings are driven by Darwinism.

Bill Venners: And that's a linear process or what?

James Gosling: One way to look at it is as a Monte Carlo process. In Monte Carlo algorithms, the precision of the result doubles as you double the amount of time. So you're getting better on a square root kind of a curve, whereas computers are going on a two-to-the-N kind of curve. Their curvature points in opposite directions. How do people with skulls of a limited size deal with that?

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