The rumours have been confirmed: Microsoft is paying $US2.5 billion to acquire Mojang, the Swedish developer of Minecraft. That raises an interesting question: how will the deal change Microsoft’s approach to Java?
Minecraft was originally coded in Java, and it remains an essential requirement for any of the PC versions. It’s arguable that Minecraft is the only reason that anyone under the age of 20 cares about having Java installed on their personal machine.
In the corporate world, while Java maintains a solid foothold, it has become a frequent target of attacks and its patching processes can be awkward and fiddly. Perhaps more importantly, the original vision for Java — allowing code to be developed that could run on any system without porting — is less relevant in a world where plugging into individual services across multiple platforms is deemed more useful than replicating the same interface on every single device.
In its announcement post, Microsoft says it will continue to develop versions of Minecraft for PCs, iOS, Xbox, Android and Playstation. The console and mobile ports don’t rely on Java — but that also makes them less feature-rich and harder to customise.
Microsoft’s announcement offers some hints about how Minecraft will change in the future:
Our investments in cloud, Xbox Live and mobile technology will enable players to benefit from richer and faster worlds, more powerful development tools, and more opportunities to connect with the Minecraft community.
There are several possible scenarios. In the “nuclear” version, Microsoft would try to port Minecraft from Java to a platform it has more direct control over. That seems monumentally unlikely in the short term, as it would create massive disruption in the code base, and merely integrating the company will be a fiddly enough challenge.
While Microsoft is inevitably going to favour its own core platforms, it hasn’t ignored Java entirely in the past. There are plug-ins for Visual Studio to allow basic code inspection. Last year, Microsoft partnered with Java’s now-owner Oracle on a broad cloud partnership, which eventually resulted in a Java SDK for Azure.
While Microsoft has said it will offer “more powerful development tools”, it’s hard to imagine that leading to rapid improvements in Visual Studio to enhance its Java support. A more likely scenario is that it will work to enhance the hosting of Minecraft servers within the Azure environment, as well as using Azure for background processing — an approach it adopted very successfully with Titanfall.
The most likely outcome would seem to be that the Minecraft deal will give Microsoft additional incentives to enhance Java support on Azure. While it’s already on that path, that’s good news for anyone currently running Java platforms and hoping to shift them to the cloud in the future.