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Intelligent Java phones come calling

Java is making phones smarter, but manufacturers aren't sure how useful it will be.

Intelligent telephones are on the way from several vendors who intend to add Java, but even the manufacturers themselves aren't sure how useful the technology will be for their appliance hybrids.

National Semiconductor is the latest company to hear the calling of the smart phone business, announcing this week a deal to combine Sun Microsystems' JavaOS with a telephone that uses National's embedded microprocessors. The company is working with a recent National spinoff, InfoGear, to design iPhone, a device that will combine regular phone features with built-in access to the Internet.

But Java's usefulness in such devices remains largely undemonstrated. Even InfoGear remains unconvinced that Java will provide great benefits for their devices.

"There's lots of Java demos," said Bob Marshall, CEO of InfoGear. "But in terms of real, functional, useful apps, it's pretty limited."

Other companies think they've found some uses, though. Northern Telecom last week licensed Sun's Java microprocessor and software to run applications such as multiple listings and directory services on its PowerTouch screen telephones. Nokia this week announced its intention to license the JavaOS for smart mobile telephones.

To hedge their bets, InfoGear and National are at least exploring the use of Java to deliver small, network-savvy applications over the phone. The first release of iPhone--expected in the first quarter of next year--will not include the Java capabilities, but it will have a way to use email and a Web browser. The company has set no date for the addition of the Java features.

But the license won't go to waste. National Semiconductor says it also intends to use the JavaOS in other devices besides telephones.