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Jini's bottleneck

The ambitious timetable for the futuristic technology has been more fiction than science--and it is a classic example of the marketing pressures that drive much of today's industry.

What is holding up Sun's much-hyped technology? Special Report 
By Stephen Shankland
Staff Writer, CNET
March 15, 2000, 4:00 a.m. PT

The age of the Internet dishwasher was upon us.

That, at least, is what Sun Microsystems promised last year with the introduction of its Jini software. The next-generation technology was supposed to create a new world of network-connected devices--videocameras, DVD players, lamps and coffee makers--that would be "on the market within 1999."

Once connected, a Jini device automatically broadcasts what it can do and how it works--a fundamental difference from the way networks operate today. Devices can then link themselves and take advantage of each other's abilities, bypassing the need for a person to inform all the affected components.
But the ambitious timetable for the futuristic technology turned out to be more fiction than science. Although companies are beginning to work Jini into their plans, no major products have hit the market in the year since the software was trumpeted.

"The hype is way ahead of the market," International Data Corp. analyst Kevin Hause said. "Sun is definitely moving in the right direction with it, but it's going to be a long process."

The way Jini has been handled is a classic example of the product-marketing cycles that drive much of today's high-tech industry. To satisfy the relentless demands of competition and Wall Street, companies often hype their products far before a market for them has been created--and sometimes with little knowledge about how their technology will ultimately be used, if at all.

Some analysts defend the early marketing blitzes, pointing to the need to create a buzz that will inspire other companies to make plans to adopt these technologies. Sun, in particular, has an incentive to maintain industry confidence and momentum because its old nemesis Microsoft and others are pushing aggressively ahead with competing software.

The risks are high. Jini has put Sun's reputation on the line as the company strives to become as pervasive on the Internet as Microsoft has been with the personal computer. And the initiative will test what lessons Sun has learned in its epic battles with the Redmond empire, from laboratory to courtroom.

The company's grand plan is to ride Jini and its companion Java software from Sun's bastion in corporate servers to the wide-open territory of networked electronics. Now, it must deliver.

The promise: A wired household
If consumers adopt the idea of networked devices in the home, Jini could give Sun the edge in selling servers used to connect everything from ovens to CD players.

The reality: Bumps in the road map
While technologically sound, Jini is at the stage comparable to having fax machines but no phone lines, analysts say.

The future: What Sun must do to rise
Once again, Sun has seen the future--and once again, Microsoft is waiting for it on the horizon.

Go to: The promise: A wired household 

Technology timeline
Sun has tried to keep Jini in the limelight at key events.
Jini launch, 1/99
Demonstration of printer, hard disk and digital cameras connected to a laptop
Japan Electronics Show, 4/99
Demo of the server-side use of Jini with BizTone's enterprise resource management software accessed over the Internet from the BizTone server in Malaysia
JavaOne, 6/99
• Demo of Jini to control a light switch
• Demo of PalmPilots used to control Lego tanks
• Demo of a Jini-enabled Epson printer
LonWorld, 10/99
Demo of a bridge between Jini and Echelon's LonWorks method of controlling lights and other household devices
Telecom, 10/99
• Demo of Jini to control lights and a CD player with a mobile phone
• Demo of a sub-PC electronic book to fetch and print email
JavaBusiness, 12/99
Demo of Jini devices and software services to read email and print to a Jini printer
Consumer Electronics Show 2000, 1/00
Demo of Jini to link a dishwasher, bar code reader and WebPad with radio-
frequency networking to a special computer acting as a gateway to the Internet



The promise: A wired household

If it succeeds, Jini could earn Sun a place in a radically new market, wow Wall Street with a new revenue stream, and make Sun a name recognized by plumbers as well as system administrators. But most important, it could give Sun the edge when selling servers for Internet-everywhere jobs such as automatically calling General Electric when an oven's heating element is about to expire or disabling the back-door alarm from work to let in the oven repairman.

CNET TV: Jini Connectivity
CNET TV: Jini Connectivity

Watch video
With Jini, devices announce themselves and what they can do when networked together. For example, a digital camera can send images to a printer or to a hard disk. Unlike current computing devices, a Jini device broadcasts an electronic instruction manual--its own "driver"--describing how to use it.

Smart appliances, though expensive niche products at first, will be a fertile field for software such as Jini, IDC analyst Bruce Stephen predicted. "White goods" manufacturers Sunbeam, Maytag, Whirlpool, Electrolux, Merloni, Electrodomestici, General Electric and Sharp all are putting electronic brains into their appliances, he said.

Jini devices are a particularly good idea in Europe, where environmental regulations and limited electricity supplies mean a refrigerator might want to check with the washing machine to make sure switching on won't blow a circuit breaker, according to PersonalGenie, a company that plans to offer services that will take advantage of such features.

"Yes, your refrigerator will talk to your coffee maker will talk to your electric blanket will talk to your oven," Stephen said. "Virtually everyone who is a name in the white goods industry is getting behind this."

Sun charges manufacturers 10 cents per Jini device but expects the real Sun had to get on the roadmaps of all these technology companies early, early on. profit to come from sales of back-end computers that will be needed to power the Internet services people use from their cell phones, TVs or cars. For those that want to use Jini software modules rather than sell Jini gadgets, Sun instead charges a fee of about $250,000 a year.

MediaGate intends to use Jini in its upcoming Internet universal messaging server that will let people use a single account to access phones, mobile phones, fax machines or pagers. MirrorWorlds is using Jini for its "LifeStore" hard disks that can be attached to any sort of gadget and store any sort of file. ProSyst is developing software to let Jini-outfitted medical monitors automatically summon a doctor when necessary.

Epson, Xerox, Kodak and "most major printer manufacturers" are working on a standard interface for Jini printers, Sun said. Japanese cell phone giant NTT Docomo will put Jini on its i-Mode cellular phones. And Gateway will ship Jini and other Sun software to Sun's customers who need Windows PCs.

Perhaps the most significant ally is Palm Computing, which is investigating using Jini on its popular handheld devices. "We like the idea. The possibilities are pretty cool," said Peter Claassen, Palm's business development manager. "We announced last year we were part of the Jini Community."

Using a Jini-powered Palm Pilot, a person could print up a list of contacts directly to a Jini printer without going through a PC or knowing what type of printer it is. A person also could download some photos from a friend's Jini digital camera, take them home, then store them on a Jini hard disk.

In addition to the 25,000 individuals who have downloaded Jini software under Sun's free evaluation license, dozens of companies have signed commercial licenses in the past six months, said Curtis Sasaki, director of Sun's consumer and embedded technologies group.

Many industry analysts say these are the reasons that Sun had no choice but to trumpet Jini early, even though it ran the risk that it wouldn't catch on like wildfire. "Sun had to get on the road maps of all these technology companies early, early on," IDC's Hause said.

Go to: The reality: Bumps in the road map 

 Related news stories
Jini Sun's entry to consumer electronics

Sun, Microsoft execs see rival home networking visions

Sun feels the Java heat from rivals

Sun's CEO rips PC industry on its home turf

Microsoft sets stage for networking standard

Java making inroads in "post-PC" era

Java wars move to consumer front

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Sun, HP push rival Java technologies

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 News around the Web
Rubbing the lamp 
Let's all get along
PC Computing 
The Net challenge: Connect devices, service
EE Times 
Keep Dreaming of Jini a Little Longer
Inter@ctive Week 
One huge computer
Wired Magazine 

The reality: Bumps in the road map

While technologically sound, Jini is at a stage comparable to having fax machines but no phone lines.

"If anything, Jini is ahead of its time. We don't have the infrastructure in place really implement all this device communications stuff," said Patricia Seybold Group analyst Anne Thomas Manes. In particular, Jini is awaiting wireless networking technology such as Bluetooth and some crucial software ingredients from Sun itself.

Sun acknowledges that Jini has been held back by technologies like Bluetooth and a standard way of sending requests to a Jini printer. "It does take time to get everything aligned," Sasaki said.

Another sticking point: Gadgets don't have enough computing horsepower. Jini needs Sun's Java software to run, but it's not easy to squeeze Java into something smaller than a PC.

Unfortunately, Java for the small gadgets also doesn't have all the features necessary to run Jini. Sun's KVM version of Java lacks support for If anything, Jini is ahead of its time. The technology is not quite there yet for us to really implement all this device communications stuff. key Sun software called Remote Method Invocation (RMI). And moving Java to gadgets isn't easy. Sun planned to release KVM for the Palm in 1999, but it's still in beta.

Jini allows a way around these technical difficulties, though: More powerful devices can act on behalf of simpler ones. To that end, Sun has begun placing more emphasis on putting Jini on "gateway" computing devices from companies such as Cisco or Ericsson that also provide a high-speed conduit to the Internet.

Another way around the performance problem is to run Java instructions directly on a microchip instead of in a miniature computer that must first translate Java instructions. Though Sun's effort at building such a chip faltered, companies such as Dallas Semiconductor as well as start-ups Ajile Systems and Zucotto all are building chips to bring Java to small devices.

But Jini is more than technology: It is an illustration of how Sun operates, and that history has not been free of problems.

First, someone with an active imagination like Bill Joy or James Gosling comes up with a clever technology. Next, Sun figures out a way to use the idea to circumvent competitors instead of attack them head-on. Then Sun trumpets the idea as loudly as possible. Eventually, well after Sun has declared victory, the idea may catch on.

Take Java, for example--software from Sun that theoretically lets a program written once be recycled for use on numerous devices without having to be rewritten each time. "Java is great, but it's taken them five years to get to where we are today. Jini is going to be similar as a building-block technology," Hause said.

And if Java is anything to judge by, things could get prickly with business partners as Jini grows beyond prototypes and pilot projects. With Jini, Sun will be anxious to avoid the acrimony with companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and IBM that has tarnished Java's history. The Jini partnerships likely will go more smoothly because the business partners aren't as likely to be direct competitors, as was the case with Java.

Java also has changed direction several times since its initiation in 1991 as a way to get electronic devices such as video game consoles and stereos to talk to each other. Java, inspired by the consumer market, now is perhaps most popular in back-end servers running e-commerce applications and is just getting started in sub-PC devices.

Jini is undergoing similar, though less drastic, changes.

Go to: The future: What Sun must do to rise 


The future: What Sun must do to rise

Regardless of the course Sun takes with Jini, there's no time to lose.

New generations of Internet-connected cell phones, handheld devices, TV sets and cars are on the way. Also looming are competing ways of networking gadgets: Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), IBM's T-Spaces or the Salutation software backed by Canon, Xerox, Matsushita, Hewlett-Packard and others.

UPnP has a distribution channel that's the envy of the industry: the Microsoft Windows CD. UPnP will ship with Windows Millennium Edition, the sequel to Windows 98 due in the second half of the year, and UPnP devices will begin arriving toward the end of the year, spokesman Shawn Stanford said. T-Spaces is shipping in two IBM products and soon will ship in 15 products from other companies.

Microsoft argues that one UPnP advantage is that it uses standard Internet They do need to combat the perception that Jini is missing in action. communications methods instead of requiring use of Sun-controlled software. Sun counters that UPnP, for all its purported independence from PCs, is still designed to further a Microsoft-centric world.

Technologically, UPnP is months behind Jini, said Alvin Chin, a technology evaluator for Canadian consultancy CGI, but Sun can't be complacent. "They can't wait for Microsoft to come and catch up," he said.

Some manufacturers are hedging bets. Siemens demonstrated a Jini dishwasher but has joined the UPnP steering committee. And Echelon, a company working on technology to connect devices in the home, at work or on factory floors, supports Jini and UPnP.

Analysts expect Jini devices to begin arriving this year. Sun acknowledges that the gadgets didn't arrive as fast as hoped but argues that it's been successful as a technology to connect software modules together.

"The devices side is happening, but it's taking a little bit longer," Sasaki said. "On the services side, it's faster than we ever predicted."

This two-pronged strategy is embodied in PersonalGenie, a 22-person start-up based in Tucson, Ariz., that's using Jini to help computers and electronics automatically respond to a person's preferences.

By June, PersonalGenie will launch a software-only service that uses Jini to assemble custom Web portals based on an abstract "digital portrait" of a person's interests and personality. Later, when Jini devices become available, the company will offer services to let homes automatically cater to a person's preferences, such as temperature.

"We're trying to reduce the number of interactions the consumer has to have with the system by increasing the intelligence of the system," chief executive Sylvia Tidwell Scheuring said.

In the meantime, the clock is ticking.

"It's clearly not lived up to the expectations that Sun had set. According to their initial plans, we should be floating in Jini devices by now," Gartner Group analyst David Smith said. "They do need to combat the perception that Jini is missing in action."  

Go to: Back to intro 

Sun president Ed Zander speaks at Jini's debut last year in San Francisco.