Several companies, believing today's networking too cumbersome or limited, are working on technologies that connect everything from light switches to supercomputers in one ubiquitous network. The idea is to reap the benefits of ever-broader networks without having to deal with obtuse, unwieldy technology.
But as often happens with high-technology efforts in their infancy, big-name companies will compete to establish their own vision of a universal network, thereby creating some confusion along the way.
After several previews, Sun will formally unveil its Jini technology in San Francisco today. Several companies, including networking software maker Novell, have licensed the Java-based technology, which allows the "spontaneous networking" of devices. And network hardware maker Cisco demonstrated a Jini-powered cable modem earlier this month, and Sun executives showed a free-standing Jini hard disk from Quantum in December.
Sun says Jini will let traveling businessmen easily plug into hotel printers, let parents at work peek through child-monitoring cameras at home, and let people turn up the air conditioning before they get home. When a Jini-enabled device plugs into a network, it automatically announces itself and its capabilities.
Meanwhile, Sun arch rival Microsoft, eyeing the approach of Jini, hastened to take the wraps off its Universal Plug and Play initiative at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month. Microsoft's technology is an extension of the Plug and Play hardware recognition system introduced with Windows 95, but it will let people tie together devices without needing a computer. With it, devices announce themselves and their capabilities when plugged into a network.
"We're looking at this with the view that all kinds of devices not currently networked today are going to want to be networked," said Alec Saunders of Microsoft's intelligent appliances division. Universal Plug and Play will work with "smart objects" such as light switches or volume controls, intelligent appliances such as Web-enabled telephones, or computers.
But Sun designed Jini from scratch, and therefore unlike Microsoft isn't hampered by having to support the "ancient" architecture of the PC, said Gartner Group analyst David Smith.
"I see Universal Plug and Play as an evolution of technology, an incremental improvement to an OK solution. I see Jini as something that is much more elegant, part of the overall movement to network computing and ubiquitous devices," Smith said.
Sun and Microsoft have similar intentions for their technologies: Both companies believe their network technologies will drive sales of more traditional products such as operating systems and servers.
Microsoft criticized Java as an out-of-the blue technology where Universal Plug and Play uses existing Internet communications standards and registration services. "We're leveraging a big heritage of existing technologies, bringing Internet technologies into a new class of devices," Saunders said.
Jim Waldo, Jini's chief architect, though, spurned Universal Plug and Play as a mere initiative that checks all the boxes on the "buzzword bingo card." It's far behind Jini, which has had beta software out for months and will be launched as a product Monday, Waldo said.
Microsoft says Universal Plug and Play devices won't need to have a computer on the network, but will be able to take advantage of one if it's there. Jini is designed to bypass computers altogether, Waldo said: "All we require is Java someplace on the network."
Farther out into the future, Microsoft's research arm is working on another networking project, an operating system called Millennium that lets computers share tasks across a network, automatically adjusting to new components being added or removed.
One Millennium prototype called "Borg" is a Java virtual machine that can make a cluster of computers look like a single one when running Java programs. Another prototype, called Continuum is similar, but adds support for other programming languages such as Visual Basic, C, and C++.
Sun and Microsoft have the most prominent efforts, but they aren't the only big names in the business of redefining how networks happen. HP, Lucent, and IBM all have plans of their own.
|Ghosts in the machine|
|Project name||Company||What it does|
|Jini||Sun||Lets any Jini-enabled device or software module share services for "spontaneous networking" with other Jini devices.|
|Universal Plug and Play||Microsoft||Extends hardware recognition beyond PCs to let electronic devices easily connect without needing a computer.|
|Millennium||Microsoft||Lets collections of computers automatically divvy up computing tasks across network.|
|T Spaces||IBM||Java-based system that allows computers, palm computers, or other devices to share messages, database queries, print jobs, or other network services.|
|Inferno||Lucent||Small-footprint network operating system to let smart phones, set-top boxes, and other equipment plug into the network and run Java or other programs.|
|JetSend||HP||Communication technology that lets networked devices such as printers, scanners, or digital cameras negotiate common file formats for data exchange.|
Hewlett-Packard introduced its JetSend technology in 1997 as a way to shield users from the complexities of different document formats, said HP's Kipp Martel. The technology complements both Universal Plug and Play as well as Jini, Martel said.
The technology lets two devices negotiate the best way to share documents so, for example, a JetSend-enabled printer could accept an image from a JetSend-enabled digital camera. The two devices communicate to figure out what common format will preserve the image quality best. JetSend also could let a cable TV operator send video on demand over a network without having to worry about what devices the viewer will use.
While the company has deployed JetSend in its own printers and, more recently, scanners as well, HP will next move JetSend into computers this spring, Martel said. This will allow the computer to take over JetSend communications for non JetSend-enabled devices, he said.
JetSend is the Esperanto of the computing world, Martel said, promising "universal viewability," Martel said. HP's JetSend-enabled CapShare 910 hand-held scanner transfers scanned images to computers using Adobe's cross-platform Portable Document Format (PDF).
HP will support CapShare both for Jini and Universal Plug and Play, even though it costs more to support two platforms, Martel said. "We are committed to this vision of a world of seamless connectivity," he said.
Lucent's Inferno effort gives equipment such as smart phones, Internet appliances, or set-top boxes a small-footprint operating system that can connect to networks or run programs within a virtual machine. The system currently supports programs written in Lucent's Limbo language or Sun's stripped-down version of Java called PersonalJava.
Inferno was publicly announced in 1997, but Smith has seen little progress since. "It's a fantastically well-designed piece of work. It's very applicable in today's world of the Internet, it's just that Lucent has not been able to market it," Smith said.
Lucent declined to comment for this story, but said Inferno can be used in a lot of the same ways as Jini. "Right now we're in the process of working on applications and technology related to specific markets, but it would be premature to comment on that now," said spokeswoman Barbara McClurken. Lucent expects to make a new Inferno announcement in "a couple of months," she said.
IBM's T Spaces
IBM's research wing, meanwhile, is working on a Java-based technology called T Spaces that lets computers, digital assistants, and other devices share data such as email or database queries.
The technology complements Jini and helps to achieve the common goal of "pervasive computing." However, T Spaces is only one of IBM's projects from its research labs that applies to that future world.
An IBM paper notes that T Spaces "basically connects all things to all things," and can run on very small devices. The technology would make it easy for resources such as printers, scanners, fax machines, or software services to be shared across networks with lots of different kinds of computers.
All these different technologies have appeal, Gartner Group's Smith said, but are likely to show up first in homes and small offices. It's hard to manage systems of thousands of devices attached to networks, he said.
But as the systems catch on, they'll likely "trickle up" to higher levels as the networking technologies become more robust and pervasive, he said.
"There is a tremendous desire to move us toward easier-to-use networking," Smith said.
Intel has a technology too which it is promoting as the "Home Network API" in an effort to develop a common method for computerized control of home devices and Sun and Philips are providing a similar technology called HAVi.