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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Tech Industry

Java battle goes retail

Sun and Microsoft both are touting their point-of-sale applications, and many retailers are riding the fence.

The Sun Microsystems (SUNW) vs. Microsoft (MSFT) squabble over Java has gone shopping.

Sun today unveiled its JavaPOS protocol for using its Java language in retail point-of-sale applications such as cash registers, bar-code readers, and scanners, but Microsoft says it is not necessary. Microsoft is promoting its OLE Point of Sale (OPOS), updated in November, as an alternative.

At a National Federation of Retailers meeting today, Sun announced its JavaPOS protocol, which is posted for comment on its Web site. Supporting the announcement were major retailers J.C. Penney, Sears, and Home Depot, as well as retail industry technology vendors IBM, NCR, and Datafit.

Many participants in the JavaPOS effort also back Microsoft's OPOS efforts. In fact, JavaPOS incorporates major portions of Microsoft's OPOS specification, particularly the parts that deal with device drivers.

"Our retailers want the choice to do either one, and we want to provide them with that choice," said Robert Kramer, spokesman for NCR's retail solutions group. NCR has customers and partners developing on both platforms, and it is using Windows for its own platform.

JavaPOS lets developers write applications that will run on any machine--smart card reader, point-of-sale terminal, or telephone.

"The JavaPOS specification is not complete because it doesn't address device drivers, so JavaPOS needs OPOS to work," said Graham Clark, a Microsoft group manager. "It's not a pure Java thing because all the application developers that are writing to the JavaPOS interface are also using the Microsoft system."

Microsoft and the JavaPOS drafters at the National Federation of Retailers discussed working together six months ago, but each pursued separate courses.

Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at International Data Corporation, said JavaPOS and related standards are very likely to give retailers more choice in vendors and technologies, perhaps leading to lower costs and better customer service.

"Look for this announcement to boost the adoption of Java and Java-enabled thin-client devices [NCs] in this sector," said Allan Bonde of the Extraprise Group consultancy. "We also see this and other commerce-related initiatives as critical to expanding the use of smart card technology and Internet-enabled supply- and demand-chain processes."

Home Depot is preparing to deploy Java applications for inventory replenishment, human resources, and a virtual office for field management in its 700 stores.

JavaPOS embraces OPOS, a two-year-old specification spurred by Microsoft as part of its ActiveStore initiatives for the retail industry. JavaPOS extends OPOS by mapping it exactly to the Java language. Sun says that will ease the transition to Java technology without making retailers' current systems obsolete.

Developed under the auspices of the National Retail Federation's IT Council, the JavaPOS participants included Epson, Fujitsu/ICL, Gateway Data Sciences, Siemens Nixdorf, Telxon, Datafit, and Cornerstone.