The actions of the Internet services developer Google, Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG) have been highly influential in various sectors of technological innovation. The company followed rival tech firm Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) into the ring of contenders in the mobile payment system field this year. Google’s acquisition of Android helped the company achieve dominance in the sphere of smartphones and mobile computing. Many former Google employees have left that company and stepped into executive roles at other tech giants like Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Twitter (NYSE:TWTR), Instagram and others. The multinational tech company has also proven to be adept at political influence; during 2012, the only corporation that outspent Google in lobbying spending was General Electric, and in 2013 Google was in fifth place.
Tech decisions made by this company can often herald important trends in the market. That’s one reason why Google’s decision to eliminate support for the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface (NPAPI) could signal a much more diminished role for Java, once a very popular programming language for Internet applications. NPAPI is a cross-platform architecture for enabling browser plugins and Java’s reliance upon the architecture means that as NPAPI leaves the Chrome system, so will the ability to run Java applications. Chrome representatives have stated on the browser’s official blog that removing NPAPI will increase security and speed for the browser while reducing the complexity of the system. As Chrome has expressed on its DevTools website, “NPAPI is a really big hammer that should only be used when no other approach will work” because of its complexity and security risks.
This change to the Chrome browser system is one of which U.S. patent applicants will want to be aware because of its impacts to some of the digital resources made available by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Both EFS-Web, the USPTO’s online patent application and document submission tool, and Private PAIR, a secure portal for learning the status of a patent application, utilize Java programming script for authenticating users when they sign in to those services. The USPTO has posted guidance from computer technology corporation Oracle Corporation (NYSE:ORCL) recommending the use of alternative browsers such as Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer to access these services in the future.
Although default support of NPAPI architecture was disabled for Chrome browsers with the release of the Chrome version 42 update released by Google in April of this year, Chrome users will still be able to manually activate support for NPAPI over the next few months. All a patent applicant hoping to use Chrome to access EFS-Web or Private PAIR would have to do is open their Chrome browser, type “chrome://flags/#enable-npapi” into the address bar and clicking the link titled “Enable” under the Enable NPAPI flag that appears. The Chrome browser will have to be restarted for the change to take effect. This manual override will be removed from Chrome with the release of version 45, expected to be released in September of this year.
It’s interesting to note that Java had been at the center of a legal dispute between Google and Oracle, which owns copyrights on certain aspects of the Java code which it acquired when it purchased Sun Microsystems in 2010. In that same year, Oracle sued Google, seeking about $1 billion in damages for Google’s use of Java to design the Android operating system. In May 2014, the Northern District of California issued a ruling on the case which concluded that certain Java application programming interfaces (APIs) were entitled to copyright protection. The case was remanded for further proceedings and is pending petition at the U.S. Supreme Court. Most recently, an amicus curiae brief filed by U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli advised denying Google’s writ of certiorari on the grounds that the case represents “a poor vehicle for the Court to address, for the first time, the application of copyright principles to computer programs.”
It’s tough to say how much of a role, if any, this court case has played in Google’s decision to distance itself from Java on the Chrome platform. The company has been developing an alternative to NPAPI called Pepper API (PPAPI) which allows users to load trusted plugins by running a command line prompt in the Chrome browser. This API architecture enables programming languages such as Flash which are utilized by web applications.
Java has also suffered in recent years from a number of security breaches which has leveraged the ubiquitous nature of the programming language as well as vulnerabilities inherent in code imported into an API from third-party libraries. Major tech corporations like Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) have all been victimized in recent years by malicious programs taking advantage of Java vulnerabilities. Techniques such as Runtime Application Self-Protection (RASP), which provides real-time analysis of application behavior for a more immediate response to any cyber attacks, have been developed by a Dublin-based firm known as Waratek. Still, data security concerns run so deep with Java that in January 2013, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued guidance to all computer users that recommended disabling Java software on all computing products because malicious coders have been able to take advantage of Java’s vulnerabilities so consistently.
As the situation with the USPTO’s online resources points out, however, there are some issues that make it impossible for certain Internet users to totally part with Java. Most households can get by on their typical Internet usage without running Java at all but there are governmental websites providing resources which require Java, including NASA and the National Institutes of Health. Businesses, organizations and individuals looking to access those tools will need to do so with a browser other than Chrome.
The Java issue is compounded on Chromebooks, the lightweight notebook computers which run an operating system based on the Chrome browser. Officially, third-party web browsers like Firefox and Internet Explorer cannot be used on Chromebooks, which is not designed to run executable software programs. It is possible, however, to install a Linux-based operating system such as Ubuntu to replace the Chrome OS, which is itself based upon Linux. Ubuntu and other Linux-based OS environments are capable of executing and running web browser programs like Firefox.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post erroneously named Oracle as a RASP developer, not Waratek. However, Waratek developed RASP based on Oracle’s Java code.