Java: What is it? Do I really need it? Is it safe?
Java is a combination of two things: a language and an environment.
Java applications execute in a "sandbox", something like a virtual machine which makes it an inheritently secure and safe environment. Generally speaking, applications which run or events which occur within Java are unable to affect anything outside of the Java environment - your machine. This is by design.
However, as in all things computing, people have found ways to use Java to cause you/your computer harm, such as the most recent event in February. When these events occur, just like any other language/technology, a solution is found and an update/patch is released. Most Java updates are not security fixes, but are a combination of bug fixes, enhancements, security updates, and other such miscellany. So yes, it is, generally safe, exponentially safer than Microsoft's ActiveX and has been historically safer than ANY Microsoft technology to date.
Do you need it? Many programs, especially web programs, are written in Java. In some cases, certain things on web sites won't work. In others, wise developers have written their sites so that if Java isn't available, some other technique is used to provide a similar result. In some cases, this means that the developer has code which runs on the server instead of your local machine, consuming valuable server resources, where having it run in a secure sandbox on your machine performs the actions locally and cheaply.
Java has a further advantage for the software developer. You can write an application in Java and it will run on any machine with a Java runtime. So the same exact program will run on a PC, a Mac, a Unix/Linux server, or any other device running Java, without having to be rewritten/recompiled. This is a huge cost saving advantage to developers since they don't have to worry about what machine/operating system the program will run on, which is also why Microsoft hates it so.
Java is a bit slower than a precompiled program written in something machine/OS dependent like C/C++/etc. but as in all things, it is a trade off.
As I said, Java is safe, inheritently more safe than most other environments. There will be occasions when it becomes vulnerable to attacks, but that is why you MUST have the automatic updates turned on and accept any updates released, just like you have to for Windows, or any other environment.
It is, in my experience, better to have it installed than not. As a sometimes Java programmer, I do have a certain bias ...
It has been years since I have had a machine infected by anything untowards, and that was only because I connected a client's device to my network without scanning it first - I forgot my own protocols. I always have an updated antivirus program running (I use Panda Cloud Free), I always access the internet from behind a hardware firewall (your home router usually does this) and I always practice safe Hex: I don't open attachments in emails unless I know what it is and I scan them with at least two virus scanners (I use Malwarebytes as my backup/on-demand scanner).
Most malware comes from one of three sources: Porn sites, on-line gambling, and so-called file-sharing services. In the case of the last, think about it: if someone has hacked the license controls of a program to share it free, what else did they do to the program as well? Do you really think they did it out of the kindness of their hearts to help everyone steal software or do they have some other agenda? Don't engage in any of these three activities,and keep your software up to date, and you will have few problems.
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