Sun announced several companies cooperating in the Jini effort, including big-name makers of computers, chips, cellular phones, consumer electronics, disk drives, and other equipment. And if Jini catches on, it could be a profitable enterprise for Sun. Although developing Jini products is free, selling those products will cost either 10 cents per Jini-enabled unit or $250,000 a year per product line, according to some reports.
For months, Sun Microsystems has been touting the Java-based "spontaneous networking" technology, offering glimpses of home and business uses of Jini at trade show demonstrations. Jini lets equipment and software modules easily plug in to networks, governing how they attach to the network, announce themselves, and share information.
"This could be the next step for Java," said Jim Waldo, Jini's chief architect since the project got under way in April 1997. Jini will unglue the processor from the hard disk drive, Waldo said, letting programs instead pull code and data over the network without making people worry about whether every device can speak the language of all the other devices. "Instead of requiring a processor and a disk, what is required is a processor and a network," Waldo said.
Some proposed uses for Jini might sound straightforward: plugging laptops, standalone disk drives, or printers into the office network, or connecting a new DVD player to the TV, stereo system, and computer with a single connection.
But Waldo offered some more radical examples, too. A user's PalmPilot could display menus and goods for sale as a person walked down a street by restaurants and stores. A car could plug into a citywide Jini network to find out where parking or restaurants are. Or a repairman could remotely troubleshoot a Jini-enabled washing machine.
Not surprisingly, Microsoft isn't on the list of supporters. The Sun rival is hard at work on its own new-age networking technology, called Universal Plug and Play. Microsoft and several other companies are developing ways to shield users from the often-obtuse demands of networking equipment together.
One key partner in the Jini initiative is Ericsson, a Swedish portable phone and networking company that began the Bluetooth radio networking effort. The integration of Bluetooth and Jini technology will let nearby devices set up their own networks, exchanging information automatically.
Network software maker Novell, long a champion of Java, also announced it would license Jini. With its expertise in providing network-based server software, Jini would seem like a "no-brainer" for the resurgent firm. "It's Sun and Novell seeing their technology lining up pretty well," said Steve Holbrook, a product strategist for Novell.
In particular, Novell may find Jini useful as a way to promote its directory services software, called NDS. Using Jini, along with some management software, the company could theoretically make it quite easy to add Jini code to any device on a network, since those devices populate NDS. The company's directory essentially serves as a central database for anything that is network-connected.
Among other companies who are backing Jini:
Bringing Jini up to speed
The release today makes Jini compatible with Java 2, the latest version of the Java technology that Sun released in December. Until today, Jini developers have had to deal with the fact Jini has required them to use an older beta version of the Java technology.
But there's still more work to do.
Waldo said Jini 1.0 has some security in place, but that a full system won't be arriving until the next version of Jini six to nine months from now. He added that Jini includes the inbred security attributes of Java. "It's hard to do malicious things in Java," Waldo said.
Jini devices announce themselves when they plug into the network, logging on to a registration service and describing what Java standards they support--for example, printing.
This requires that an application programming interface (API) for that device to have been written. Sun currently controls the API process, either by leading the effort to write the standards or, in a new system, by choosing an expert to lead the effort. Sun executives have said the new system will be more common for writing APIs in the consumer electronics space, where there will be the greatest need for new Java APIs.
Jini is the first case where Sun is trying out its new Community Source License, a middle way between the free-for-all techniques of open-source software development and the more tightly controlled world of traditional proprietary technology.
Under the Community Source License, anyone can license Jini and develop products for free. But companies wanting to ship Jini products for a profit must pay Sun a fee.
The community-source license responds to complaints by Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and other industry heavyweights that Sun's grip on the Java specification is too tight.
Because Jini is based on cross-platform Java technology, Sun says Jini-enabled devices won't have to worry about complexities that emerge when chips, operating systems, and network technologies get mixed in an environment. All Jini devices need is a Java Virtual Machine, the environment where Java programs run.
In fact, a Jini device doesn't need to have its own JVM. It can piggyback on another virtual machine elsewhere in a network. That allows much smaller devices to be Jini-enabled, Waldo said, since taking advantage of this proxy service requires about a hundredth or thousandth as much software.
To run Jini, a device needs about 640K of memory to hold Java, Waldo said. With more engineering, that memory footprint could be shrunk, he added.
In December, Sun loosened Java licensing rules so that other companies could develop "clean-room" clones of JVMs, requiring that the clones must pass compatibility tests before they earned the Java coffee cup logo.
Hewlett-Packard and others have developed their own virtual machines. In addition, Mozilla.org, the group that oversees the development of the Netscape Communications Web browser, released a free Java virtual machine yesterday called ElectricalFire that has no Sun code.
ElectricalFire runs on Intel architecture machines operating either Linux or Microsoft Windows. The software passes 90 percent of Java compatibility tests on Intel architecture machines, the ElectricalFire Web site says.
"ElectricalFire began as an in-house commercial compiler project at Netscape in early 1997. The compiler, which was never publicly announced, was scheduled for release in June 1998. It was canceled in January 1998, when the company made a strategic shift away from Java," the Web site says.
CNET News.com reporter Ben Heskett contributed to this report.