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IBM eyes Java chips

Sun Microsystems adds IBM to the roster of companies using Java technology in customized chips.

Sun Microsystems (SU NW) today added IBM to the roster of companies using Java technology in customized chips.

IBM's Microelectronics division will license Sun's Java technology for use in embedded processors, which serve as the electronic "brains" of devices such as advanced cell phones, digital cable set-top boxes, handheld computers, and printers. Big Blue will manufacture and sell chips based on Sun's picoJava processor technology as well as its own processor technologies (such as the PowerPC design) to current customers, including other divisions of the company.

Programs written in Java have been touted for their ability to run on a wide array of electronics devices without having to be rewritten each time the program is used on a new product.

Despite this advantage, industry analysts express concern that there is not a large market for chips that only run Java programs. Sun originally expected that embedded processors based on the picoJava technology would be available in early 1997, but observers say few, if any, Java chips have shipped, in part due to a lack of demand.

"So far the market for [Java chips] is zero and it may grow modestly from there," said Jim Turley, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources, a research firm covering the microprocessor industry.

Chet Silvestri, president of Sun's Microelectronics division, explains the lack of Java chips differently. Other picoJava licensees are designing not only new chips but whole new devices that will use the chips.

"It takes longer to develop full custom devices. There is less incentive to show [the chip] until there is a product ready," he said. The advantage of having signed IBM is that IBM can bring custom chips into the market quickly.

Turley said he remains unconvinced that Java chips will have a place in cell phones and other small devices because Java is currently too inefficient at translating information to be of much value.

Java is an interpreted language that runs on top of the operating system (OS), meaning that Java programs can run on any OS since they are translated on the fly. That translation process, however, often results in a performance penalty.

But Java-enabled chips are designed to counter this effect by directly incorporating the "translator," called the Java Virtual Machine, on the chip. Sun claims that compared to any 32-bit RISC processor, the picoJava chip will run Java progarms 10 to 15 times faster at the same chip clock speed.

Some developments on the horizon may yet spur market interest. Turley thinks the picoJava II chip, due later this year, will be more popular because it can run programs written in languages other than Java. IBM's current deal with Sun does not include use of the picoJava II chip, although officials said the current agreement could be extended in the future.

Tony Massimini, chief technology officer for Semico Research, a chip industry consultancy, says that combining Java technology with other chip functions could aid in the adoption of the technology.

"People want a high level of makes sense to integrate it," Massimini said.

In cell phones, for instance, where space is at a premium, an integrated Java chip would work well since separate chips add unwanted cost and take space, something that vendors are loathe to do in cost-sensitive applications.

IBM, in fact, says that communications products are a target market for Java technology. The company recently purchased Encinitas, California-based CommQuest, which designs and markets advanced semiconductors for wireless communications applications, such as cellular phones and satellite communications.