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Rockwell produces Java chip

The JEM1 processor executes Java code with no special interpretation, but how will it do in the embedded processor market?

    Rockwell Avionics and Communications, a division of Rockwell (ROK), says it has produced the first Java processor that can directly execute Java programs, but questions remain about how Java processors will fare in the competitive, low-margin market for embedded processors.

    The new JEM1 processor developed by Rockwell's Advanced Technology Center executes the Java code directly with no special "interpretation" required. Currently, this is not how Java code is typically run.

    Java's strong-suit is that Java software can run on any computer architecture that supports an application "engine" called the Java virtual machine (JVM). This makes Java software attractive since it is not tied to any proprietary architecture. But it also makes Java potentially slow since intermediate steps are required, such as interpretation, before the code can be run.

    Rockwell's chip executes Java code directly, however, speeding up software. The JEM1 is intended mainly for use as a microcontroller in applications involving telecommunications and navigation, Rockwell said.

    While the market for embedded processors is growing rapidly, where Java processors such as Rockwell's new JEM1 will find a niche is unclear. Embedded processors are typically low-cost chips--often called microcontrollers--which are not as powerful as the microprocessors found in PCs and workstations but deliver the necessary intelligence to serve as the "brains" of advanced cell phones, smart cards, set-top boxes, and network computers (NCs).

    Sun originally expected that embedded processors based on its picoJava technology, which Rockwell has licensed for use in its new JEM1 processor, would be available in early 1997. Sun Microelectronics is the division of Sun Microsystems (SUNW) responsible for putting Java technology on a processor.

    Other embedded processors from companies such as Patriot Scientific are "tuned" for use with Java applications, but still require use of a Java virtual machine, and until now Sun itself has not produced a chip which executes programs directly.

    But now that a chip can be made, Rockwell and others have to figure out what to do with them.

    "We haven't defined what we could do with this technology yet. A possibility for a first application would be in non-flight critical use such as maintenance diagnostic application," according to a Rockwell spokesperson. Rockwell is also considering selling the processors to other customers, but has not made any decisions yet, she said. Another strength is that Java-based devices can be upgraded over a network.

    The idea of being able to easily control or upgrade devices electronically over a network is very appealing to companies such as Rockwell, but Java processors may cost more than they are worth, according to one industry analyst.

    "The bigger issue to me is why anybody would want to use Java processors," says Jim Turley, senior analyst with MicroDesign Resources, a research firm covering the microprocessor industry.

    Embedded applications like consumer electronics and cellular telephones are very cost-sensitive, Turley says. Even with Rockwell's chip, a program will still have some instructions that need to be interpreted by a compiler like the JVM, and that requires extra memory and adds cost to the device.

    "The beauty of Java is it runs equally poorly on all microprocessors. There are some chips that are somewhat better than others, but it doesn't matter all that much," Turley thinks.

    Technical details for Sun's microJava processor are expected to be unveiled at Microprocessor Forum '97. The microJava processor is based on the picoJava technology, according to Turley.

    Sun is targeting picoJava for use in embedded applications such as "smart" phones, set-top boxes, network computers, and PDAs. Embedded processors are low-cost processors designed to consume small amounts of power. LG Semicon, Mitsubishi Electric America, Samsung, and NEC have also said they intend to build chips and products with picoJava technology.