Sun Microsystems has released a beta version of the next release of Java 2 Standard Edition (J2SE). This is a set of specifications used for creating desktop applications, which also forms the basis of Java development tools from Sun and its partners.

Sun described the upgrade, developed under the code name Tiger, as the latest major revision to the Java platform. It implements dozens of changes, many of which focus on making the Java programming language easier for developers to use.

A beta release of the upgrade, called J2SE 1.5, was released Wednesday for download at Sun's Java Web site. The final version is expected to be out by the middle of the year. It consists of two parts - an SDK (software development kit) and a Java runtime environment.

While Sun's Java software has been widely adopted on server computers, its use on the desktop has been more limited. Nevertheless, J2SE is important because it provides the foundation for Java 2 Enterprise Edition (J2EE), the server version of Java. Some of the new features will also trickle down to J2ME (Java 2 Mobile Edition) used for portable devices such as cell phones.

In addition to making Java easier to program with, the upgrade focuses on issues that are important for enterprise use such as performance, scalability and security. It also adds support for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s 64-bit Opteron chips for servers running Windows 2003 and SuSE Linux AG's version of Linux.

Altogether, the upgrade implements 15 Java Specification Requests, which are suggestions for extending and improving Java that pass through the multivendor Java Community Process. There are also dozens of minor changes.

One of the most significant additions is support for generic types in the Java language, said Java creator James Gosling, a Sun fellow and the chief technology officer of its developer products group. Generics should reduce the amount of code that developers have to write and also make it easier to identify bugs earlier in the development cycle.

How to implement generics has been debated since Java's introduction. "I was reluctant to put something in where, no matter how you did it, 90 percent of people would come around and beat you up. So Java came out without generics," Gosling said.

It almost made it into the J2SE 1.4 release, but the Java tools vendors needed more time to prepare and so it was pushed back, Gosling said. He is now satisfied that generics have been implemented in a way that's efficient and carries little overhead. "Most people should be able to learn it in a day," he said.

Other changes include a new monitoring and management API (application programming interface) that developers can use to help debug and tune applications. For Java applications running in data centers, it provides more fine-grained information about how servers are performing, Gosling said.

Vendors such as Sun, Borland Software and Oracle are expected to release integrated development environments (IDEs) based on the J2SE upgrade. Sun aims to have its NetBeans IDE upgraded at about the same time that J2SE 1.5 is finalised, which should be by August or September, Gosling said.

Gosling has spent the past two years in Sun's research labs working on projects related to development tools. Some of those projects are close to finding their way into Sun's developer products, he said, and so he returned recently to Sun's tools group.

"It actually means I'm spending less time writing code and more time doing corporate stuff, which is tragic," he said.