Sun buys Canadian firm Beduin

The acquisition will help Sun come out with applications for handheld computers, TV set-top boxes, and other consumer devices.

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Sun Microsystems today announced its acquisition of Canadian software developer Beduin Communications, a company that has developed a small-footprint Java-based Web browser for cellular telephones, for an undisclosed price.

The Beduin acquisition gives Sun another route to license Java, in this case as a universal operating system that runs on all sorts of devices.

"Sun wants to propagate the Java solution," said Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

Beduin, a 12-person company founded in 1997 by Bob Tennant and John Criswick, has written a Web browser called Impact that takes up only 260 kilobytes--a third smaller than competing products, according to Beduin.

Beduin has licensed Impact to telecommunications company Nortel, which plans to deploy the software on cell phones in Europe, Kaldor said.

Impact is the first product in a small-footprint software suite, said Mark Tolliver, president of Sun's consumer and embedded division. The browser will be joined by email and personal information manager (PIM) applications also designed to run on devices where space is at a premium.

Sun's acquisitions and products in the information appliance arena
Acquisition /Product Function
picoJava (10/96)* Chip for devices
Diba (7/31)** Designs for TV set-tops
Chorus Systems (9/97) ** OS for devices
Beduin (10/98) ** Web apps for devices
* picoJava is a processor core developed by Sun.
** acquired by Sun. Source: Sun

Such devices include TV set-top boxes, portable phones, desktop phones, car navigation systems, and pagers.

"Here at Sun, we believe Java is the platform of choice for going forward with such devices," Tolliver said.

Beduin has developed Impact but hasn't begun shipping it. Sun expects to begin selling it in the next two months.

The browser-on-a-cell-phone software is part of Sun's strategy to encourage the consumer devices market--a strategy that now has moved from just providing tools such as the Java operating system to providing actual products.

"Having applications pre-done and readily available...will make the market more attractive," Tolliver said.

"I think it shows that Sun is very interested in pursuing the information appliance area and keeping Java moving along," Kaldor said. "We definitely feel that information appliances are a hot segment of the market."

So adding interactive capability to cell phones or TV set-top boxes could mean revenue for Sun--if it can get companies to adopt Java as the way to provide that interactivity.

Kaldor said vendors are "attracted by the portability of Java," which would allow, for example, France Telecom to write smart phone software just once and allow it to run on any cell phone that used Java.

One potential pitfall, though, is that cell phones, with their limited screen size and their limited ability to handle large amounts of data, aren't going turn into generic Web browsers any time soon.

"You have to look at it as providing additional functionality to the cell phone, rather than as a replacement for something else," not even a very small device like a Palm Pilot, said Scott Miller, an analyst with Dataquest.

Beduin is "a good acquisition for Sun," said Richard Doherty, director of research at The Envisioneering Group.

Doherty believes that there's going to be booming business in consumer devices running browsers or email programs. By the year 2000, it could account for more than 10 percent of Sun's revenue, he said.

But in trying to spur this consumer devices market, Sun's acquisition strategy has been "opportunistic" and "scattershot," Doherty said. Right now Sun's push into the consumer devices market "seems awfully thin," he said.

The missing piece that's keeping that market from blossoming is the hardware connection link that will let portable devices connect to the network, Doherty said, so Sun's next business deal could be with a company like Pacific Bell or GTE that provides a service like cellular phone communications, wireless networks, low-earth orbit satellites, or cable broadcast.

There were about 73,000 subscribers to wireless Internet services in 1997, but that market is expected to increase to 8 million by 2002, said Julie Rietman, and analyst with International Data Corporation.

One potential use for Web-enabled phones could be location-based services that tell a user what weather is on the way or where a nearby hotel is to ride out the storm, Rietman said.

The Beduin browser will run on any device that has a Java virtual machine, a sort of simulated computer that can run Java programs.

Sun hopes that the Beduin acquisition will spur development of small devices that can plug into networks, Tolliver said.

"It's an indication, I think, of the commitment by Sun to this consumer and embedded marketplace," Tolliver said.

But Sun's commitments don't always turn into real products.

The JavaStation, for example, didn't become the replacement for desktop computers, as Sun had hoped.

But the Beduin technology "has nothing to do with (the JavaStation), and that's a good thing," Kaldor said. The JavaStation faced an uphill battle because it would have meant that companies had to replace all the equipment in their corporate networks.

Kaldor said Sun had more success with the JavaStation once it backed off from head-to-head competition with PCs and targeted it for smaller markets such as data entry stations.