A brief explanation of Java versions

3 Mar

How does one make sense of Java’s version history for learners? The full story is at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Java_version_history, but here’s the brief version:

First be clear that that there is only one Java language—one set of syntactical rules for how to write Java code. This set of rules has grown a few times since Java’s introduction in 1996, but valid Java code written in 1996 will still compile with today’s Java. However, the standard Java libraries have also evolved over the years, and some parts of the library have been deprecated (meaning you shouldn’t use them in new code you write because they are flawed and may be completely removed in future versions), so old code may need to be reworked to use modern libraries in place of deprecated ones.

While there is only one Java language, there are several implementations of the language, meaning there are different compilers, different JVM’s (Java Virtual Machines), and different implementations of the libraries. These varying implementations (mostly) all conform to the Java standards, but some have extra features and some have performance advantages over others. The most widely used Java implementations are from Sun, the originator of Java. Recently, Sun has begun releasing its Java implementation under the GPL (Gnu Public License), a free / open source license.

Java is, in truth, a standard and not just a particular line of software downloads released from Sun. For simplicity, though, we’ll only consider the Sun releases and their terminology, as Sun’s Java is the most popular implementation and the one learners should use.

Standard Edition (SE) vs. Enterprise Edition (EE) vs. Micro Edition (ME)

Java comes in three “editions”, which, strictly speaking, are specifications, not actual implementations of a JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and Java libraries. In practice, though, the terms are most commonly used to distinguish between the three Java implementations freely downloadable from Sun.

  • SE is the baseline JVM and libraries. This is the edition used by most PC end-users.
  • The JVM you get with EE is one and the same with the one in SE, but EE adds a large number of libraries for server-oriented programming. It generally never hurts to download and run Sun’s EE Java distribution, but as a learner, you’ll likely never use the EE libraries. I prefer to browse the SE documentation so I don’t have to wade through EE stuff I never use.
  • ME is Java adapted for resource-constrained (i.e. low memory, low power) devices, e.g. cellphones and PDA’s. Because of their typically low storage and memory capacities, such devices can’t afford to have all the libraries found in SE (and certainly not in EE). Small devices differ significantly from one another and so Sun leaves it up to device makers to offer proper implementations of ME for their particular platform. Sun has an ME reference implementation that runs on PC’s which is used for software development (just because you’re writing software for a cellphone doesn’t mean you want to write it on a cellphone!).

Java Development Kit (JDK) vs. Java Runtime Environment (JRE)

On PC’s, you have the choice of using Sun’s JDK or the JRE. The JRE, meant for end-users, comes in only the SE flavor and contains the JVM (Java Virtual Machine) and the SE standard libraries. The JDK comes in the three editions and includes not just the JVM and libraries, but also development tools, including javac (Sun’s java compiler), so this is what you’ll want as a programmer. If you have the JDK installed, you don’t need to install the JRE separately to run any Java software (though it’s likely your browser will have an embedded JRE of its own). (The term ‘JDK’ is an echo of the more general term ‘SDK’ (Software Development Kit)).

Version numbers

Without getting into the features added by the versions, here at least is the naming history:

  • The original release of Java was 1.0, released in 1996.
  • Then came 1.1 in 1997.
  • 1.2 in 1998 is when Sun split Java into the three editions. Sun began calling this version and subsequent versions Java 2, and so you will see references to J2SE, J2EE, and J2ME (Java 2 Standard Edition, Enterprise Edition, and Micro Edition, respectively). Sun began giving the releases codenames while they were in development, calling 1.2 “Playground“.
  • 1.3 in 2000 (confusingly still called Java 2). Codenamed Kestrel.
  • 1.4 in 2002 (confusingly still cased Java 2). Codenamed Merlin.
  • Sun then decided the version numbers weren’t getting big enough fast enough, so they decided to call the next version, released in 2004, variously 1.5, 5.0, Java 5, or (most egregiously) J2SE 5.0, J2EE 5.0, or J2ME 5.0. Codenamed Tiger.
  • Sun finally drops the Java 2 business, deciding that, from now on, the public name of releases will be Java n while the internal development name will be 1.n.0. In late 2006, Java 6 is released, known internally as 1.6.0. Codenamed Mustang.
  • Planned for release in 2008 is Java 7 (1.7.0), codenamed Dolphin.

So, in summary, the sequence of most used designations goes: 1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, Java 5, Java 6, Java 7.

As for the feature improvements these versions represent, in general, each release saw bug fixes and performance improvements for the development tools and JVM along with additions to and refinement of the libraries. Aside from these behind-the-scenes changes, Java 5 is the one release which significantly added new features to the language itself, including generics, annotations, autoboxing, enumerations, “varargs”, and the “enhanced for” loop. (None of these features have analogs in PygeonJava, as they are all in one way or another inessential conveniences.)

8 Responses to “A brief explanation of Java versions”

  1. Mona April 15, 2007 at 6:02 am #

    thanks a lot for this. I’m doin a paper on the evolution of Java versions. I was wondering if you could put up more stuff on how the versions of Java differ from one another, the major changes in at least J2Se 1.4 , 5 and 6 and basically how they have developed for other OS’s.

  2. Brian Will April 21, 2007 at 10:11 pm #

    This was meant as a brief overview for those new to Java. I think the Wikipedia link at the top is as good a brief overview of the version history as you’ll get. Also check out:


    (btw, sorry for the late response; spent last few days on upgrading to Vista and the new version of Ubuntu, so wasn’t checking the blog)

  3. Gary August 15, 2007 at 2:12 pm #

    Finding your Java explaination is great.
    I am new to Java and was starting to figure some of this out, but your blog has cut through the confusion and potential hours of figuring it out on my own.

  4. Reddy March 24, 2010 at 11:32 pm #

    Good information for beginners on Java. I was confused with all the code names used in naming java versions. Thanks for the crisp and clear information.

  5. gobi October 2, 2010 at 10:54 pm #

    i’m a beginner.thanks to u for sharing the info that u know..it’s really helpful..

  6. yoursdev01@gmail.com July 30, 2011 at 9:11 am #

    i’m a beginner student, thanks for providing all this info
    thnak u, very much – Devdatta

  7. Brian June 6, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    Terrific article, it explains exactly why it all seems so confusing! Very helpful, thank you.

  8. Vijay Sekar July 19, 2012 at 1:13 am #

    I have already started learning java but I didn’t know that there were this much of things behind the scenes. Thank you for sharing. I was kinda wondering that which version of java is widely used? And why it is specifically used if there is other versions available?

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