In these days when even grandma can design and maintain a website - sometimes for free, what value can a web designer or programmer add to justify paid work and interest in their product? I get pretty irked by designers that crank out solutions in pure HTML, and fail to take advantage of web technologies and standards that'd enhance the user experience, make design/programming a breeze, and take advantage of the latest technologies. Most of these things are available for free on the web.
Another idea is to find a good application or website and reverse engineer it - that's the ultimate learning curve. Since this is essentially "educational" and "research", you are not bound by copyright and other legal issues - as long as you don't steal their code.
Finally, integration with .Net and other technologies is a possibility. What would it take to port application to various environments, or at least have them play together? Of special interest will also be finding out which is the easiest and least expensive way to implement such a solution.
The application I'm choosing for this exercise is a simple timecard utility that can be extended to include features related to time management. This doesn't sound hard, does it? I mean, you can have a prototype literally overnight. All it does is present an interface where users can punch in the hours they worked, and it calculates the usual paycheck. The basic prototype is manual and simple, but it enables us to have something simply functional and see how the various technologies can be used to enhance it. Simple goal.
That said, I'll do Java development in the NetBeans 6.0 (M9) IDE. It comes with the Sun Java System Application Server 9, and that's pretty much all that's needed at this point. Of course you should already have a Java EE 5-aware JDK (1.5 or later). Eventually, we'll need a database to store our information.