What are they?
It was particuarly attractive to developers and companies who didn't want to develop software twice - they could write software and have it run on most types of platforms.
So what happened to Java?
One of the major attractions of Java was that it gave fairly basic web browsers - namely: Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator (a precursor of Firefox) - the ability to do fairly advanced things. It gave them functionality which they didn't natively have. However, over time, those web browsers began to implement various features by themselves, bit by bit removing the need to have external plugins installed to do them.
By the time Apple launched the iPhone in 2007 Java's reputation (along with Flash) was already looking pretty shakey, but due to Apple's decision to not support Java on the iPhone (which by the way wouldn't have been a hard decision!) it was probably the final nail in all Java Applet's coffins.
Java lives on..?
While Java is essentially completely dead in our browsers - only still used by a very small minority of websites who haven't updated their systems in a long time - there are some corporations which have put Java to good use in other arenas.
One of the key attractions of Java - it's ability to run the same code on very different types of systems - means that it is still used in a number of places outside our web browsers; places where cross platform compatibility is still very important. One of the most popular childrens games "Minecraft" is written in Java and uses it to run. It's also possible to develop Android apps with Java. Java applications also exist in a lot of enterprise corporations and still has a strong development community behind it.
Do I need Java installed in my browser?
In short: probably not. Unless you're trying to use a very old website which still relies on Java Applets, you probably don't need it.
In fact, most modern web browsers don't even support the Java plugin any more! You won't be able to install and run it on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. You'd have to go digging for a much older version to find one that would still support it!
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