Chuck McManis writes:
Tcl was the 'language to beat' amongst the new language products. Self was the 'language like no other' (or a totally new way to express what you wanted to a computer). Java was the 'language that re-used code'. C++ was kind of a joke (remember this was the late 80's, early 90's) since it took a perfectly acceptable language, C, and made writing code harder, more error prone, and less likely to produce correct code (all true at the time).
Tcl was a language of rapid expression and Java was a language which was safer, in part, because it enforced a certain level of correctness (type safety, no pointer arithmetic, Etc.).
Tcl had a "huge" installed base of developers, Java had zero developers and hoped to have 10 or 20K eventually.
Bert Sutherland (the guy running Sun Labs and Ivan's brother) got everyone in a room and said "We're going to have a 'language' day, and each of you gets to present why you think your language should exist." the issue was of course that Sun had only so much budget and we had no business reason for developing any new languages.
Surprisingly to some, Tcl 'won' that evaluation. Self was going to continue because Bill could self fund it if he wanted to, and Tcl had the developer base and momentum. The decision was taken to scrap the remains of the Java team (called the Live Oak project at the time) at the end of the Fiscal Year (June 30th, 1995). We were all set to be 're-deployed' which was Sun code for 'find a new job inside of Sun or we'll lay you off.'
What happened next was unexpected. James Gosling, with Kim Polese's help, had convinced the lawyers to allow us to release the source code for 'free' (very un-Sun like) so that we could at least point at something we had done on our resumes. The requirement was that we have a trademarkable name for it (which I believe was, in part, to prevent Apple or Microsoft from re-publishing it as their own thing). We dropped Alpha 1.1 (we had secretly released Alpha 1.0 in February) on March 23rd. Kim sent out a press release to some folks. (not sure if she used PR Newswire or not) The Mercury News put it on the front page, they got a quote from Marc Andresson over at Netscape that it was cool. When I went to the WWW conference 2.0 (as in second conference :-) in Darmstadt Germany two weeks later, everyone wanted to talk about it. I manually downloaded and installed it on all the Sparcstation 20's that the sales office had brought to the conference and gave a quick set of talking points to the sales guys. When I got back there was a storm because folks like Ed Zander were demanding to know why they hadn't been briefed before we announced it, Phil Sampire(sp?) was complaining that people kept calling the sales office to get their sales droid to come out and talk about it and they had no marketing material and no prep. May press conference was already queued up as the SparcStation 20 / Firewall-One launch event, the SS20 got the boot and they replaced it with the Java 'launch'. I spent a crazy couple of weeks creating a completely Java home page for Sun (had I known it was a portent of all flash sites to come I might have shot myself right then and there :-)
Everyone 'forgot' about how they were going to flush the team and instead everyone came out of the woodwork to claim they had supported it all along, SunSoft, SunLabs, and Sun Interactive (which had the only financial success with it at the time, competing against the Time Warner VOD bids). An entirely new 'planet' was born, called JavaSoft and the rest is history.
What Java gave Sun at that point in time was a credible threat against Microsoft. The threat was that the new desktop was the browser, and the way you coded for the browser was Java. Tcl didn't play in that space, and to their credit I don't think the Tcl folks were willing to go there just to ride the buzz.
Java's wake grew to eclipse the other language efforts and Sun never looked back.