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Java browser to run on machines

Sun is converting its HotJava browser to run on "smart" soda machines, intelligent photocopiers, and other pieces of equipment.

Sun Microsystems has decided to jump back into the browser wars.

But this time, Sun's HotJava browser will be running on "smart" soda machines and intelligent photocopiers, not desktop computers, and will act less like a traditional browser and more like a communication tool.

Sun's shift on HotJava is part of a growing trend to connect uncommunicative industrial equipment to the Web. Under Sun's plans, HotJava gets incorporated into equipment like vending machines, toll booths, gas pumps, automated teller machines, car dashboards, and ticket kiosks so that these machines can then be tied into the Internet.

The owners or service technicians can then immediately get data from the machines, said Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's director of enterprise products.

The browser-enabled machines also could flash advertisements, tell customers about special promotional deals, or let people fill out surveys--all new ways for companies to sear their brand names into consumers' minds. Schwartz said it's a new kind of "portal," hooking up customers and suppliers everywhere, the way Amazon has made book purchasing on the Internet a big business.

Sun says many of those systems already use sophisticated computer-based systems, so using Sun's technology wouldn't be that big a step and wouldn't add that much more cost to the equipment. A company would just need hardware that could run programs written in Sun's Java language and a phone jack to plug into the Internet.

But Chuck Owen, owner of Silicon Valley C&S Vending, was skeptical that putting a computer screen on vending machines was a good idea.

"It'll never fly," Owen said. "Vending machine operators scrimp and save for every penny they can get," he said, and most vending companies simply don't have the spare money to afford such niceties right now.

Real-time data-gathering technology exists now, letting companies call their vending machines to find out how much money they are storing or how much candy they've sold. Owen would like to add the feature to his collection of about 300 vending machines, but doing so increases a $4,000 vending machine's price tag by another $1,000.

Schwartz believes that the data that would come out of Internet-enabled sales equipment is going to be increasingly important in a world where suppliers are trying to be exactly in tune with consumer desires. "Safeway makes more money off the data than they do off the food," he said.

Owen might be skeptical that Sun will make money off vending machines connected to the Internet, but there's definitely growing interest in running computer programs on equipment that has its own microprocessor built in.

The market for these so-called "embedded" systems is a hot one, and Sun isn't the only company to take a crack at it. Even software giant Microsoft, with its Windows CE and NT operating systems, has been trying to get a piece of the action. Spyglass also has a lightweight browser that runs on Windows CE that can be installed in industrial equipment.

Sun's browser is just the tip of the iceberg for its embedded device plans. With its "write once, run anywhere" Java mantra, the company hopes to find licensees for Java technology all the way from the soda machine to the mainframe.