Culture

Sun working to pour Java into cell phones

If Sun Microsystems has anything to do with it, the next cell phone you buy will have that steaming coffee-cup logo on the box.

SAN FRANCISCO--If Sun Microsystems has anything to do with it, the next cell phone you buy will have that steaming coffee-cup logo on the box.

The logo, which symbolizes Sun's Java software, is recognizable chiefly to systems administrators, computer whizzes and other technically savvy people. But Sun hopes that mainstream folk also will seek out that logo, even if they only have a sliver of an idea what it indicates, said Curtis Sasaki, director of product marketing for Sun's consumer technologies.

At its JavaOne conference this week, Sun gave a high priority to its gadget version of Java--called Java 2 Micro Edition. In a keynote address, Sun CEO Scott McNealy touted cell phones, video-game consoles and smart credit cards as the next frontier for Java.

Though Sun hasn't yet begun trying to make consumers crave Java, the company has a marketing pitch prepared, Sasaki said: "We want Java to mean really cool services."

Sasaki likens the situation to the Dolby noise-reduction system on stereo equipment. Most people have only the vaguest idea that the technology has something to do with improved sound quality, yet they seek it out when buying audio components.

For consumers, those fancy services could include playing games over the Internet while waiting in line or tapping into corporate sales databases while visiting customers. For telecommunications companies, the services mean an opportunity to charge for those services and for the minutes connected to them. And for hardware makers, they mean an opportunity to sell more elaborate and expensive phones.

Gadgets have become the new vanguard for Java, a software technology Sun debuted in March 1995 and has been revamping ever since in a moderately successful effort to spread the technology to servers, desktop computers, storage devices, and just about anything else in the computing landscape.

Java is a software technology that lets programs run on a multitude of computing devices without having to be rewritten for each one. For example, the Java version of Sega's video game "Sonic the Hedgehog" running on a Motorola cell phone with an Arm microprocessor could run just as well on a RIM Blackberry pager with a different chip.

Dawn of gadget era nears
Though Sun has succeeded in spreading Java to most desktop computers, the company thus far hasn't succeeded in its longtime ambition of using Java to relegate Microsoft Windows into irrelevance. And until recently, its years-long effort to spread Java into gadgets hasn't borne fruit.

For gadgets, Java required too much memory, processing horsepower and battery power. But Sun and others have been whittling away at Java while the computing muscle of portable devices has been increasing, and Java-enabled gadgets finally will become reality next month.

Korea's LG Telecom will introduce a Java-enabled cell phone in July. Research in Motion has put Java on two of its high-tech pagers. Motorola will put Java on cell phones, pagers and other devices. Nokia smart phones will use Java beginning in 2001. And the members of the Symbian alliance--Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola, Matsushita, Sony and Philips--all will have Java on fancier wireless devices using the Epoc operating system, Sasaki said.

These phones won't be cheap, though they won't cost as much as full-fledged computers. And at the outset at least, they'll appeal chiefly to technology enthusiasts, Sasaki acknowledged.

"These phones aren't going to be for the guy who wants the free phone," Sasaki said.

Sun hopes the fancier features enabled by Java eventually will become standard. "These products are like a lifestyle. You take them everywhere," Sasaki said.

At that point Sun's Java logo becomes more important. The RIM pager will include the Java logo, as will several cell phones, Sasaki said. However, Sun can't require manufacturers to sport the logo, he added.

For now, though, Sun is focusing its evangelism efforts on the manufacturers of electronic gadgets and on the telecommunications companies that will enable fancier services, Sasaki said. When the products are available, Sun will begin trying to increase the recognition of the Java brand, he said.

But the spread of Java into cell phones brings with it some ironies. Sun, in its effort to bypass Microsoft, has for years argued that complexity belongs on the server--in other words, that it's better to let big, centralized computers handle the heavy lifting while people tap into them with comparatively stripped-down devices.

Now, though, Sun is calling for an increase in the complexity of cell phones and other gadgets. Sasaki argues that such increases are warranted by the improved services that complexity will enable, combined with the need to make the devices useful when disconnected from the network. "Offline operation is really important," Sasaki said.