Java patron Sun Microsystems announced a deal this morning with Japanese electronics giant Matsushita to develop Java technology so consumer electronic products, including everything from televisions to air conditioners, can share information with each other and with computers via the Internet.
"Adaptation of Java technology will help Matsushita to develop and deliver a new breed of digital consumer appliances that allow consumers to exploit the benefits of the network," said Kazuhiko Sugiyama, vice president at Matsushita, at a press conference in Japan. Matsushita is better known to U.S audiences as Panasonic.
Sun and Matsushita want to fuel the convergence of consumer electronics and computer networking technologies, a trend already appearing with the advent of Internet TVs, digital television, and a growing array of handheld communications devices. But to do that, Java needs further refinement, analysts say.
Part of the deal with Sun calls for Matsushita to license PersonalJava from Sun. PersonalJava is a slimmed down version of Java created specifically for networked consumer devices such as set-top boxes.
Perhaps more significantly, Matsushita, with Sun's help, wants to develop a smaller Java platform and application programming interfaces (API) that can be used in digital televisions. Such technology could be used by a TV station to send a customized graphical interface that melds data and video, for instance, or customized "buttons" that could appear for a particular ad that allows a user to click through to a Web site.
The companies will also evaluate the development of APIs for use in a variety of electronic appliances like digital audio-visual equipment and home appliances.
For Java, a wider audience
The sheer number of consumer electronics devices shipped each year far outweighs that of the PC market, making it an important target for companies such as Sun and Microsoft that want to ensure their technology has a role in controlling newfangled gadgets and networked home appliances.
To date, the knock against Java has been that it takes up too much memory and does not yet perform well enough to be suitable for use in consumer electronics devices. By refining Java for use in consumer electronics devices, the chances of having the technology more widely adopted could improve significantly.
"Everybody wants to do information appliances [which connect to a network], but they involve additional cost, which consumer electronics companies are reluctant to add in," said Kevin Hause, an analyst with International Data Corporation.
Java technology in its current form requires extra memory in these devices, which makes devices more expensive to build. For an industry that measures the cost to make a device to four decimal points, Hause said, that has resulted in limited use of Java.
"The consumer electronics business has always been very cost sensitive," acknowledged Paul Liao, Panasonic's chief technology officer and president of Panasonic Technology Incorporated. "We want to have a platform that offers the flexibility and performance to do things [such as electronic programming guides and custom interfaces], yet not necessarily require the full power of a complete PC."
With the two companies working together, Java may yet be molded into a form more appropriate for these market conditions. Already, television standards bodies in Europe and America are looking at Java to solve challenges with digital television and its ability to send text, video, and audio information down the same data pipe.
The adoption of Java is still far from a certainty, deals notwithstanding.
"Signing and making high-level agreements is a long way from actually deploying product," cautions IDC's Hause. "That's been the case with a lot of these [information appliances]. Everybody is hedging their bets in a lot of ways."
"We're still at the very beginning here of networked consumer appliances, so no one really knows which is the optimal way to go forward," Liao said. The first products to run on the Java software aren't expected to appear until 2000 at the earliest, the company said.
For its part, Matsushita is hedging its bets by also working with Microsoft. In July, the electronics giant signed an agreement with Microsoft to cooperate in making sure that PCs will be able to receive and display digital TV broadcast signals. The company has signed a licensing agreement to use the software and will port the Windows CE operating system to its processor products.
The partnership with Sun complements the relationship with Microsoft because the Java software is a networking product working on top of the Windows operating system, executives said at a press conference in Japan.