Software tools that make it easy to learn and use Java, the high-level programming language, now will be free for schools, Sun Microsystems Inc. has announced.

For a trial period, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities can download Java development applications at Sun’s web site free of charge.

Java was created to run “mini-programs”–or applets–on any kind of computer platform. Java is best-known as a language that helps makers of web sites create pages anyone using a computer can see. The applets are downloaded onto your computer’s hard drive, where they run small programs that do various tasks–animate a graphic, for example, or provide information from a database.

Sun’s special offer could save a school thousands of dollars, said Graham Lovell, a product marketing manager for the company. Making the software free was intended to “remove another barrier to using ‘industrial strength’ applications,” said Lovell.

Java isn’t a popular language yet taught in high schools. But as the need increases for platform-neutral programs that can be pulled down from the internet, for example, programs increasingly will be offered in Java, multiplying the need for Java programmers.

The free programs offered by Sun include Java Studio and Java Workshop, applications that are appropriate for K-12 education, said Lovell, because they make writing software applications easier. For younger students, Lovell said, the Sun web site suggests other software packages that use Java but in very simple ways, such as Pierian Springs’ Digital Chisel.

Shane McGregor, the director of Denver-based Technology-in-Learning, said that learning Java is important for high school students who are going on to college or careers in technology. Students participating in Technology-in-Learning, a community organization that helps disadvantaged kids gain technical skills, will be able to compete with more affluent students, McGregor said.

“It’s a needed skill,” he said. “It adds to their repertoire. You can create more interactive web sites with more complex variables.” Java Studio and Java Workshop software, McGregor said, will help students learn the language much more easily. Java is usually written in a text-editing program (such Microsoft Word) and then run through a special compiler. If the program doesn’t work, the programmer has to scan through dozens or even hundreds of lines of code to figure out what went wrong.

“Studio or Workshop would let you write in a specialized environment that would address issues and make it easier to troubleshoot where errors occur,” McGregor said. “The most difficult thing about writing code is debugging, so the Workshop environment would make it easier” for students and teachers.

Students who want to design and build web pages will need to know Java, said Karen Needles, a history teacher and technology consultant in Kansas. “Java is a very important software language to know, since it deals with the internet,” she said. “Many middle and high schools are offering Java language classes to students instead of Cobal and Pascal. . .” She said the latter “are outdated languages.”

Sun’s Site for Free Java

Digital Chisel