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WTF is it?

Duke the Java Mascot, explained

Natali Vlatko
Duke, the Java Mascot @ JavaOne 2011 © Oracle PR

Have you ever wondered what Duke the Java Mascot is? Is it a mockup of the Star Fleet communicator badge? Perhaps it’s an anthropomorphic dinosaur tooth? Whatever it is, it’s time we found out!

The story of Duke the Java Mascot has long been shrouded in mystery and… confusion. What exactly is Duke? What is it meant to be? And how did he come to represent one of the most popular programming languages ever?

The history of Duke

Well, believe it or not, Duke was initially designed to represent a “software agent” that performed tasks for the user. According to Java.net, “Duke was the interactive host that enabled a new type of user interface that went beyond the buttons, mice, and pop-up menus of the desktop computing world”.

Wait… that sounds rather familiar.

Sun Microsystems’ Green Project team created its first working demo that featured Duke, the star of their touch-screen user interface. The interactive handheld home entertainment controller was called the Star7.

As for artist credit, Joe Palrang is the man you can thank for spawning the blob-like Duke, who went on to work for DreamWorks on animated films like Shrek, Antz and Flushed Away. During his time at Sun, Palrang was the Art Director for demo animation/applications, as well as for initial Java technology.

Palrang was also responsible for this earlier concept drawing of Duke, which represented the Green Project team more specifically.

When the good ol’ early cup logo for Java was commissioned, Duke became the official mascot for the language. “Duke was instantly embraced”, recalls Java.net, and the mascot peaked in terms of what he could become. And by peaked, we mean there was a freaking comic made about him! ‘The Amazing Adventures of Duke‘ was released in 1996, where he became “the Net’s Smoothest Code Man”. Yes, we can confirm Duke is a man.

The comic features an impressive storyline with Java patriarch James Gosling himself making an appearance. Debuting with 16 pages in standard issue colour, only one issue was ever catalogued. Neal Adams is credited as the artist, and to comic book fans, that’s quite the coup. He’s known for helping create the definitive modern imagery of DC Comics characters Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow, as well as penciling several issues of X-Men for Marvel Comics.

Duke gets open-sourced

In 2006, the graphic specifications for Duke were open-sourced under a BSD license. This meant that anyone was able to play around with his likeness via duke.kenai.com. The creations that followed were obviously weird and wonderful:

  • A T-shirt design featuring Duke riding the Great Wave off Kanagawa – is nothing sacred?
  • Duke mourning the death of Sun Microsystems with his mate Tux, the Linux Mascot (for real)
  • Duke taking on Godzilla, because Godzilla hates Java duh
  • Duke snorkelling, even though he doesn’t even have eyes or a mouth
  • Duke and Tux together again, this time sword fighting some paperclip warriors who are faithful to the almighty Clippy

With Duke’s growing popularity, it wasn’t long before life-sized versions of him were turning up at JavaOne developer conferences:

Duke at JavaOne 2011 © Oracle PR Duke at JavaOne 2011 © Oracle PR

Since taking the reigns from Sun, Oracle have been releasing a new Duke ‘personality’ as their way of celebrating the mascot-thingy. In 2010, Oracle released Surfing Duke, who “tagged along for the ride at the Java Road Trip: Code to Coast”. In 2011, Duke was transformed into Future Tech Duke, while Adventure Duke was Oracle’s personality of choice for 2013.

While Duke is used to represent Java technology and awards for innovation, his very form has perplexed and perturbed the community for a while now. Is he an alcoholic penguin or a metronome? Perhaps he’s the reading puck from a ouija board? Or the wisdom tooth that was lost during early Java development?

What if a more conventional shape or character was chosen as the Java mascot?

The mascot that didn’t make it

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Java Bear – a stuffed toy branded with the old school Java logo that reveals the potential mascot rivalry that could have existed in the early days of Java:

2244560121_440dc7af25_z © K W Reinsch from flickr.com

With it’s cute green pullover and clearly present eyes, ears and mouth, Java Bear is a rare glimpse into the ideas that Sun were throwing around when it came to mascots and merchandise. What if the legacy of Java’s mascot was left in the hands of a nondescript teddy bear? In the end, this might-have-been Java mascot will forever remain in the shadow of Duke the blob.

In short, Duke is quite the conundrum: instantly recognisable, yet at the same time rather baffling. Let us leave you with this video of him in a Java DeLorean to confuse you even more.

Author
Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for JAXenter.com (S&S Media Group).

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