Is Java Sexy?
Here's a question for you: is Java sexy?
I'm not talking here about programming in Java, I seem to recall that the coolness-or-otherwise of Java compared to other languages has already been bandied around the blogosphere some time back. No, I mean is the Java brand sexy? When you let slip to someone you've just met that you program in Java, does their mouth fall open in awe?
The answer is probably no. After all, why would it?
I know I'm not the only one who has been accosted by a member of the public with enquiries about Java. Like many people I tend to take something to read when embarking on a long train journey, and sad man that I am that something is often programming related. On one such journey I caught an individual eyeing my printout of an on-line tutorial resting on the empty seat next to me. It was clearly some kind of technical documentation, and the top page featured the swishy coffee cup logo (or an approximation thereof) and the word JAVA in nice bold lettering. Finally our eyes met. "Do you make mobile phones?", she asked. "Erm, I know how to write software which can run on phones", I replied, and she looked at me as if I'd just told her I could turn base metal into gold.And there in lies the nub of the issue. If I'd told the young lady in the train carriage that I knew how to program her computer, she would would have dismissed me as some kind of Coke-guzzling, pizza-munching, Trekkie. But, paradoxically, knowing how to do wild and wacky things with her beloved cell phone somehow makes me a very exotic and interesting creature. Phones are cool, and knowing the magic incantations which make them work, somehow, in the innocent eyes of the uneducated, grants the bearer of such forbidden knowledge a lot of kudos. (Okay, perhaps it's not as cool as being an Astronaut, or a rock star, but still light years ahead of working in Marketing or Accountancy!)
Some programming jobs are cool. For a certain demographic of males, games programming is 'ultra ultra' cool. There's a tiny cluster of small gaming related companies dotted close to where I work, plus one of Sony's own European Playstation development studios less than half a mile away, so from time to time I'll run into someone from the video game industry in a local pub. For video game fanatics (who probably account for a hefty percentage of the twenty-something male population) games programming seems to be a very sexy and exotic job. I've observed with some amusement the reaction when one such coder introduces himself to, say, a Playstation fanboy — the wide eyed look, the jaw hanging open.
We can see a simple pattern emerging here: Programmers are cool when they write code for products people care about (phones, games...) Programmers are geeks when they write code for stuff people don't really care about (spreadsheets, payroll...)
Java in the mobile market is now pretty much a 'de facto' standard. People care about phones. It's primary use in the ME space is games. People care about games (well, those with Y chromosome do!) And Java is about to become the backbone of a new wave of media content, via Blu-ray DVD. All of these technologies are, in their own ways, sexy. So... why hasn't some of this magic rubbed off onto Java?
I'm beginning to think it's a branding issue. I see the swishy coffee cup, and I think Starbucks (or any coffee-based franchise of your choice.) Even though I've been a Java programmer for over a decade now, the logo still screams coffee shop to me, more than it does software. Does this matter? Well, yes! Because Java aspires to be a platform onto which cool stuff is built, and even though it is programmers doing the building, we still need to reach out and make the general public aware of Java and what it stands for (in much the same way as Microsoft touts its operating systems and Intel touts its chips directly at the consumer.)
Perhaps for those markets where Java is coming face-to-face with members of the general public (like the aforementioned woman on the train) Java should adopt a different logo? One which is more 'hip' and 'trendy'. One which appeals to young and old. One which conveys the creativity and energy of the Java brand...
They use off-beat humour coupled with mascots (crude little puppets, in an almost Postmodernist 'knowing' way) to engender a creative/cool/streetwise image for their products. Indeed, so successful was Levi's Flat Eric puppet, he went on to star in adverts for totally unrelated products. Java already has its own mascot-with-attitude, in the form of Java Duke. Perhaps it's about time Duke stopped being a nerdy in-joke and took a more central role in Java's brand image?
What I suggest is that Duke should replace the coffee cup as the main mascot/icon/logo/whatever for Java on phones, DVD players and any other consumer facing device — including, perhaps, the applet loading screen. And we should really push Duke's "creativity with attitude" side. Perhaps the applet loading screen could feature a random animation of Duke doing naughty or wacky things? (Vector, rather than bitmap — let's not bloat the JRE any more than it is :) Anything which takes Java away from its rather formal corporate brand and injects more fun and spontaneity into its image would surely go a long way to making it stand out in the eyes of the public(..?)
Okay, so people may never know exactly what Java actually is. That's not the point. They don't know what a Pentium is either, yet Intel spends millions pushing the message that Pentiums are 'fun' and 'powerful'. Until we actively start pushing the link between Java and fun/coolness/creativity, Java will forever remain in the eyes of the public just a strange disembodied name on a cell phone or next-gen DVD menu, with a Starbucks-esque logo and no hint as to its form or purpose.