Sun dreams of slimmer Jini

The company is scaling back its Jini software intended to network everything from kitchen appliances to cell phones, adding a stripped-down version more likely to work on today's gadgets.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes 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
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Sun Microsystems is scaling back its Jini software intended to network everything from kitchen appliances to cell phones, adding a stripped-down version more likely to work on today's gadgets.

Gartner analyst Mark Driver says that transformational leaps in network computing never occur at blink-of-an-eye speeds and that the much-ballyhooed Java Jini software is a case in point.

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Sun's Jini software initially was designed to allow gadgets such as printers, cars, cameras or heart monitors to easily form networks to share services such as printing or accessing data. But Sun's hopes for Jini-enabled gadgets arriving in 1999 proved to be overambitious, as developers struggled with the difficulties of cramming Jini and its required software underpinnings into devices with limited memory and processing power.

Sun hopes to have more success with the addition of a Jini "surrogate architecture," said Jini marketing manager Franc Romano. The surrogate architecture is midway between full-blown Jini and the Jini "proxy" capability that allows processor-free devices like light switches to hook up to Jini networks, he said.

Romano declined to guess when Jini-enabled devices will actually arrive, but he predicted that the surrogate architecture would hasten the day.

"We have to wait for devices that have limited capability to evolve to the point where they can run Jini at least in native mode," Romano said.

Jini is one of a number of technologies emerging to try to tie together increasingly powerful gadgets. Sun's biggest competitor, Microsoft, is pushing its own Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) system. Windows Millenium Edition (Me), which shipped last month, is the first Microsoft operating system to include support for UPnP. Microsoft claims that it has shipped more than 250,000 copies of Windows Me since its release.

Microsoft argues that one UPnP advantage is that it uses standard Internet communications methods instead of requiring use of Sun-controlled software. Sun counters that UPnP, for all its purported independence from PCs, is still designed to further a Microsoft-centric world.

Like Sun, Microsoft envisions a future where ordinary household appliances, such as coffeemakers, are intelligent devices that communicate with one another over a network. Microsoft claims that manufacturers are already designing devices that can communicate with Windows Me and its future UPnP-enabled operating systems. Such communications could result in VCRs that can stream video throughout a home, or thermostats that know to turn the heat down when the family is on vacation.

Other competitors, such as Salutation, also are cropping up.

Sun and Microsoft care what technology is used in gadgets because it determines which computing systems will best interact with the devices. UPnP is an extension of existing Microsoft-Intel hardware designs, whereas Jini bolsters Sun's push to spread the Java programming language from the smallest device to the biggest server.

Jini's surrogate architecture enables devices to perform some basic Jini tasks, such as identifying themselves on a network and interacting with other devices, Romano said. But it doesn't require a "virtual machine," the core of Sun's Java software technique to enable programs to run on a wide number of computing devices without having to be rewritten for each one.

Jini's bottleneck Though a Java virtual machine (JVM) makes life easier for programmers writing software such as Web browsers or email clients that will run on lots of gadgets, a JVM also requires more computing power and memory, resources that increase a gadget's price tag and decrease its battery life.

The surrogate technology specification, currently in draft form but expected to be completed in the next three or four months, is one of a host of Jini developments from Sun.

At the LonWorld 2000 conference Oct. 18, Sun plans to release a new version 1.1 of Jini, Romano said. The new version comes with a number of "helper utilities," prewritten Jini software programs that Jini developers were having to write over and over.

Next year, Sun will add improved security features to an upcoming version of Jini, Romano said, including "remote authentication" features to let Jini devices identify themselves or keep other unauthorized devices from accessing their services.

In 1999, though, Sun said the improved security was planned for version 1.1.

One hurdle for using Jini in gadgets is that it requires Java software called Remote Method Invocation (RMI), but RMI currently doesn't exist in Sun's various flavors of Java 2 Micro Edition. Sun is working to bring RMI to Java 2 Micro Edition, Romano said.

Jini isn't just for gadgets. The software also works as a way for software services running on larger computers to announce themselves on a network. Software services has been the first area where Jini achieved some popularity, Sun has said.

Sun also is working on ways to get Jini to work better with large numbers of gadgets or software components. Currently, Jini devices register themselves and their capabilities in a table called "lookup service," but it's difficult to stitch together lookup services.

Sun hopes to spread programmer interest next year by holding the first Jini developers' conference, currently scheduled for early February on the West Coast, Romano said. Sun hopes to have 500 at the conference.

"We feel now with 30,000 licensees, we have a critical mass of developers out there who can benefit from having access to the architects and also from sharing what they're doing," he said. In addition, developers will be able to interconnect their Jini services to make sure they work together.