But Sun's list of partners is hard-to-ignore evidence of the feasibility of gadgets that work with the programming language.
This week at the JavaOne conference here, Sun announced that its "write once, run anywhere" Java technology will appear in 3Com's handheld PalmPilots. NTT DoCoMo's Internet phones and Motorola two-way pagers will also use Java by the end of the year, said Mike Clary, head of Sun's consumer and embedded software work, as will Sharp's Zaurus personal digital assistant. And Sun persuaded four companies that clone the Java technology to abide by Sun's licensing rules.
Despite these deals, some companies, most notably Hewlett-Packard, continue to balk at issues involving intellectual property and control that emerge from Sun's Java Community Process and its Community Source License. But the fact that the disgruntled companies care about Java is in itself an endorsement of the technology.
The gadget focus at Sun has stepped in to replace Sun's vision of the network computer, a cheap PC replacement. The company's vision of the "post-PC" era is now what Java founder Bill Joy described yesterday as "the age of devices," instead of Java-based network terminals about the same size as a PC.
Size and speed
The performance requirements and reliability concerns of Java hampered Sun's earlier attempts to take the technology to the gadget world, but hardware has caught up and Java now is mature, said Anne Thomas, an analyst with Patricia Seybold Group.
"The critical features in the embedded world are size and speed and reliability," Thomas said. "The price point on a toaster is $14. You can't put a $25 processor and memory card into this machine."
"The [embedded] world is ballooning anyway, with or without Java," Thomas said, but Java is gaining popularity. For one thing, it allows groups such as Espial Group or Icesoft to write browser and email programs in Java and have them work on many different devices.
Even Jon Kannegaard, head of Sun's effort to propagate Java technology in huge servers, said that tiny gadgets are the highlight of the conference. "As the [Java 2] Enterprise Edition guy, I really think the Palm deal is the big deal," he said. "That really anchors the low-end potential for Java."
The future of Jini
Sun isn't standing still when it comes to advancing Java. Last January it formally unveiled Jini, its Java-based "spontaneous networking" software that enables gadgets to announce themselves to a network and describe what functions they can accomplish.
The near future of Jini includes version 1.1, Clary said, which mostly improves Jini security. Security is very different when people are carrying devices all over and are connecting them to many different networks, he said. The draft version of Jini 1.1 should be out for public review now, Clary said, and should be finished in July or August.
In addition, Joy said Sun is working on standardizing several common Jini services, including storage and printing.
Another enhancement in the works for Jini is "context triggers"--the ability of a Jini device to take certain actions depending on its environment. For example, a Jini pager fitted with the ability to know the time and its location might know not to beep in the middle of a meeting or a movie, Joy said.
As is customary, Microsoft and Sun are at odds over networking technology. Microsoft has Windows CE and its Universal Plug and Play technology. HP is located in the middle ground with a gadget-oriented clone of the Java environment called Chai, which Microsoft has licensed. And HP has created a Java-based version of Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play.
In the Jini and UPNP fight, Microsoft executives use an argument that's often deployed against them. Jini is proprietary technology, said Alec Saunders, Microsoft's group planning manager for consumer Windows division.
"This is all about choice," he said. "You can choose open standards or you can choose Jini."
At the time, Microsoft submitted a UPNP specification to the Internet Engineering Task Force to have a protocol become the part of UPNP that lets devices discover each other, so they can connect to each other. Microsoft said the specification should be completed in the next year and products supporting UPNP should be released after that. Demonstrations of the technology are now available.
Last Friday, Microsoft convened the first of many meetings in which a consortium of companies will define the protocols and standards needed for devices to occur, Saunders said.
While Sun is receiving royalties from Jini, Microsoft isn't making money from UPNP, he said. "We're interested in interoperability. Imagine how quickly the Web would have grown, if Tim Berners-Lee demanded a dime for every Web page created? It doesn't work."
IBM, too, is interested in Java, but one analyst says the company isn't putting a strong effort into making gadgets. IBM has a vision of "pervasive computing," but it hopes to make money off the concept not with devices but with infrastructure, said Steve Milunovich, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, who spoke with IBM executives this week. "IBM will not make devices but will provide technology [chips and hard disks] at the component level and the infrastructure [servers and software] at the system level," Milunovich said.
But IBM executives said at the JavaOne conference that the company is interested in Java in gadgets. David Boloker, Java chief technologist, and Scott Hebner of Java technology marketing, pointed as examples to IBM's VisualAge for Embedded Systems and its use of Java on point-of-sale terminals, the gussied-up computing devices that have replaced cash registers.
Regardless of how they get there, IBM has aspirations on making money off its view of ubiquitous computing devices. "IBM estimates that the pervasive computing opportunity will grow from under $10 billion to $100-120 billion by 2003," and IBM plans to have products and services that address about half of that market, Milunovich said.
Lining up licensees
One sign of success for Java in embedded devices is the new licensees that chose to participate in Sun's looser licensing model, announced in December. Under the new method, companies may evaluate Java and develop products for free but have to pay in order to pass the Java compatibility tests and to ship products.
The new licensing method allows for independently developed versions of Java technology, but the same compatibility and royalty issues apply whether a company uses Sun's code or develops its own "clean-room" software.
Joe Leung, a board director of Access, said his company decided to run its JV Lite Java clone software so it could "take advantage of the visibility of Sun's Java" and help keep Java from fracturing into different versions. "We don't want to have two different standards out there," he said.
He also said he believed his company, which has been writing software for gadgets for 14 years, could help Sun achieve credibility in the embedded space. "Sun is not very strong in the embedded world," Leung said.
Meanwhile, a new category of malicious software, including Melissa and ExploreZip, has emerged to take advantage of the increasing connectivity of computers. What happens when cars, TVs, cell phones, laptops, tape recorders, and everything else connect to dozens of networks all day long?
According to Sun's top technologists, there's no risk, because security has been built into the Java technology from its earliest days.
Java code runs in a protected area called the "sandbox," and "every piece of code has to pass the scrutiny" of Java's security manager, said Java creator James Gosling.
Sun all but guaranteed Java is invulnerable to viruses. A Java program maliciously writing to a computer's hard disk is "categorically impossible," said Sun chief technology officer Greg Papadopolous.
Gosling also said Windows is a terrific environment for viruses, because Windows programs have carte blanche. "Don't leave petri dishes out on the counter, and boy is Windows a petri dish," Gosling said.