WebHype: Java steams up the monitor

Caffeine . ahhh, my drug of choice. Nothing facilitates a night of red-eye Web-browsing like a slug of hot tea brimming with that mind-altering substance, as I'm sure a few of you know. Imagine then my delight on discovering that Sun Microsystems is even developing a way, code-named "Java," to caffeinate my computer.

"Java" is a programming language that lets software designers create miniature programs called "applets." These mini-programs, which will run on any computer that can use a Web browser, will finally give the Internet what it has always lusted after and never really had: true interactivity.

Sure, you can click on a link and get the next page, or fill out a survey, or send E-mail, but interactivity the ability to manipulate data over the Net has always eluded Net users, because of how difficult it is to get data over the phone lines at a useful speed.

This is where Java comes in. Java "applets" are miniature programs that only do one or two tasks, and do them very well. Instead of just sending data to you over the Net, these programs download themselves to your browser and hook themselves right in, able to run at full speed. The mini-apps customize your browser on the fly, giving it new capabilities and specialized functions nearly instantly.

What's the use? Well, the possibilities are endless, from automated, continuously updating stock tickers to video games and scientific instruments. Most of the Java modules available now are simple "demos," flashy little graphics tricks. But some have a definite use, such as clocks, perpetual calendars, mini "trackers" that keep tabs on your browsing, and special control panels that help you navigate a large Web site. Other applets will be search tools, E-mail programs, and even automated "agents" that go out and fetch data for you on command. Want to know the weather every half hour? Download the Weather Gopher and he will find you a color map for any time you request, as often as you like.

There is also a slightly sinister aspect to Java. All the technical documents out there insist that Java is "secure," meaning that the programs can't be altered or corrupted, and the data they transmit back to the download site is confidential. However, not much is stopping some programmer from designing an applet called "Happy Face" that puts a little smiley on your screen while it searches your hard drive for phone card numbers, sending them back to the program's creator. Luckily, the Internet is ravenously vigilant about policing itself. Anyone who releases a virus or rogue applet (known as a "trojan horse") is instantly hounded off the Net, so abuses like that should be rare.

This same "security" will also open the door to something even more revolutionary, and perhaps more sinister: e-cash. Electronic cash is the philosopher's stone of the Internet, the salvation all the corporations are looking for a secure, safe, and reliable way to do business on line. Right now, using a credit card number on the Net is about as safe as having it sky-written over LA. I bought some CDs a few days ago, and after being warned by the company (http://www.musicblvd.com) a dozen times that my link was not secure, I had to phone a voice-mail box to complete my order.

E-cash would change all that, creating huge virtual banks on the Net where real money could be exchanged for goods with complete security. This has long been thought to be impossible. Java's engineers think they have the solution.

The result might be a totally different Web, one with electronic tollbooths that will suck up your e-cash at every corner, if you are not wary. It will also start to resemble the Home Shopping Network a lot more, both in content and style, which is not a good thing. On the upside, you may be able to buy customized, personalized, target-marketed merchandise nearly instantly over the 'Net within a year or two. Like that new software package? Buy it! The provider downloads it to your computer, sets it up, and charges your account. Instant gratification never felt so good .

For more info of a depressingly technical nature, browse at: . When will you be able to use Java? Very soon. In fact, it already works under Windows 3.1 and 95, with all major platforms to follow.

And because every page on the Web only leads to another and another, check out , and you will find Too Much Coffee Man, an angst-ridden antihero for the '90s in comic-book form. While he's a little too similar to fellow non-heroes The Tick and Paul the Samurai, TMCM is a lot of fun and well worth checking out. This link will also lead you way too deep into the on-line world of underground comics, so be prepared .

Other random hits: http://streams.com/pierce, http://www.xtabi.com, http:/www.cddirect.co.uk/newrels.html, and http://web.syr.edu/~rsholmes/dead/index.html.

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