Sun aims for ultracheap cell phones

An alternative to a $100 laptop: Sun hopes selling JavaFX Mobile to phone makers will bring cheap Net access to the masses.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Call it Sun Microsystems' answer to One Laptop Per Child.

The server and software company hopes to sell a version of Java to phone companies that will bring network access to the world's computers, executives said here at the JavaOne trade show.

"Java will play a central role in bringing the Internet to the planet," Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz said during a news conference. "It will be the software to build the devices to bridge the digital divide." In a brief speech at the show, Schwartz indicated he believed the Java-powered mobile phones could be sold for $30 to $50 apiece.

JavaFX mobile

That's a notch cheaper than the $100 price the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative hopes to reach in 2008. OLPC began at the MIT Media Lab but now is a separate initiative to build easy-to-use, Linux-powered wirelessly networked devices.

Sun isn't building its own phone, Schwartz said. Instead, the company expects partnerships with manufacturers that will have the direct relationships with customers. "We're not there to disintermediate them from their audience," Schwartz said.

Key to the vision is JavaFX Mobile, based largely on technology Sun acquired when it purchased a small company called SavaJe in April. Sun has worked for years to develop Java as a technology that it licenses to others, but the JavaFX Mobile software is a product that the company will sell.

JavaFX Mobile is geared for small devices, but its Java interface is most similar to the Java Standard Edition (SE) software that runs on standard PCs, said James Gosling, often called the father of Java. However, the software also can run the host of Java applications that have been written for the prevailing incarnation of Java for mobile phones, called Mobile Internet Device Platform (MIDP). MIDP is based on the more compact Java Micro Edition (ME).

Jonathan Schwartz
Credit: Stephen Shankland
Sun Chief Executive Jonathan Schwartz

JavaFX Mobile will usher in a new, more direct phase of Sun's years-long attempt to profit from the millions of dollars it has invested in Java software since its public debut in 1995. Sun has arguably benefited indirectly from Java--for example, by holding Microsoft at bay in some domains, by keeping programmers interested in Sun, and by gaining an entree at customers that need to buy servers--but it's been companies such as IBM, Oracle and BEA Systems that have made the most money selling companies Java products to run software on servers.

Today, Sun licenses Java to mobile phone companies such as Motorola or Nokia, which get access to working "reference implementation" software and typically assemble their own collections of Java components.

But Sun expects to directly charge for JavaFX Mobile. It's realistic to expect phone makers to begin using it in the first half of 2008, said Rich Green, Sun's executive vice president of software.

Sun will ship phone manufacturers a pre-built "binary" that sidesteps some of the issues of compatibility that have dogged Java in mobile phones. Sun long has billed Java's advantage as "write once, run anywhere," but because phone makers enabled different modules of Java, software written for one phone might not run on another.

"JavaFX is a binary product. You can't have fragmentation if it's a binary implementation," Green said. "That business model saves time and energy on the part of licensees who don't have to spend time mucking with source code."

Sun showed JavaFX Mobile applications, including Yahoo Go for Mobile 2.0 Internet services, running on a mobile phone. The phone, a model from First International Computer, ran the JavaFX Mobile software on a stripped-down version of Linux, Gosling said.

Sun has been trying to bring today's unconnected billions onto the Internet for years, in part because it hopes to sell back-end equipment to the banks, governments and others who will provide Internet-based services.

To further this effort, Schwartz described an initiative he termed "engineers without borders" to try to marshal the energy of technologists to improve the lot of humanity.

"There's a lot of passion about people trying to bring technology to the developing world," Schwartz said.