I've always wondered about this -- how did AWT come to be when it was obvious that NeXTSTEP desperately needed to be ripped off with Java?
Java was the perfect language to try to emulate what NeXT was doing with Objective-C. Sun had control of the language, tons of momentum, and they had just acquired experts in Objective-C app writing (Lighthouse).
Some Java devs did understand what needed to be done. Surprisingly, Symantec was one. I bought their Java dev env called Symantec Cafe as soon as it came out. They had some behavior in there that was a lot like Interface Builder.
In any case, it's kind of funny that on The Server Side, there's a raging debate about whether Java or Objective-C GUIs. No one even brings up WPF... I'm not sure if it's out of ignorance or irrelevance (though they did mention Silverlight).