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Sun sticking to Java software

Sun executives insist the company won't enter the market for building consumer device hardware, despite speculation.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems (SUNW) may be pushing its Java software as the best way to run gadgets and gizmos, but its executives insist they won't be making the devices themselves.

Sun has spent much of its JavaOne conference here touting Java as the software base for building smart phones, pagers, cards, and other consumer-oriented devices. Given that Sun also makes computing hardware, observers have speculated that the company could make a move into the gadget business.

Sun fueled that speculation yesterday by demonstrating Persona, an egg-shaped hardware server that plugs into a phone and stores and manages all incoming voice calls, email, and faxes. During the demo, CEO Scott McNealy said it was a "concept vehicle" and not a commercial product. He denied Sun's interest in getting into the appliance business in a subsequent press conference: "I don't see what value we add in terms of competing with consumer electronics companies."

But Sun president Ed Zander did raise the possibility of manufacturing a Web server appliance for the enterprise market. He said corporate customers have expressed interest in the device as a remote server to handle branch and sales offices.

In a discussion panel later in the day, it was pointed out that the Persona is similar to a Java-based Web phone that telephone equipment maker Alcatel plans to sell in the United States this year.

"There is a lot of overlap," said Patrick McGill, vice president and general manager of Alcatel's U.S. operations. "But the question really is, are [they] experienced in this space?"

In another consumer area, Sun last August bought Diba, a maker of set-top box hardware and software that let people access the Internet through their TV sets. Diba was folded into Sun's Microelectronics group and is now combining hardware and software to create "reference implementations"--working models on which other manufacturers can base their products--for set-top boxes.

Even if Sun were to sell a device that delivers much of the same functionality--its JavaStation network computer with its simplified interface, network access to email, applications, and Web-based content is another example--it wouldn't know how to sell it to the mass market, according to one Sun executive.

"There's a lot more to it than just building the device," said Sun vice president and fellow James Gosling, one of Java's creators. "Setting up a channel [to sell to consumers] is a massive undertaking, and it's something we know nothing about."

Despite Oracle's attempt to position the NC as a replacement for the home PC, one industry observer contended that the NC are not for home users.

"[Oracle CEO] Larry Ellison's just blowing smoke on that issue," said Chris Shipley, editor of the Demo Report.

Senior Writer Tim Clark contributed to this report.