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Java chip not picking up steam

The much-publicized processor family that was designed to run Java on TV set-top boxes, cell phones, and other Internet appliances appears to be on its last legs.

The Java chip, according to some, is toast.

The much-publicized embedded processor family from Sun Microsystems that was designed to make the Java programming language a standard feature for set-top boxes, cell phones, and other Internet appliances appears to be on its last legs, according to Jim Turley, embedded processor analyst for MicroDesign Resources.

Java will come to these devices--but just not through Sun's chips, because no one seems interested in Java chips based on Sun's designs, he said.

Sun hotly denies this contention. Licensees have produced samples of the Java chips based on Sun's designs, an indication that commercial products will come out. Sources in the chip industry have generally confirmed this.

Still, no products have been announced, and the company most likely to produce chips for sale, Sun, won't. Sun will release a sample of the MicroJava 701 next week, the first public release of the Java processor based around Sun's designs. Sun, however, is now stating that it will not make or market Java chips, or consign production--as it does with Texas Instruments in the case of Sparc processors for workstations and servers.

Instead, it will design Java processors and let its licensees manufacture the chip.

"We have strategically altered our direction to focus on the technical foundation rather than coming out with CPUs," said Harlan McGann, head of the architectural and technology group in Sun's Microelectronics division. "It is a pretty highly customized market and we're not set up to deliver 1,000 variations of a chip. We will leave the actual implementation to the licensees."

The current state of the chip's prospects contrasts strongly with its past, albeit largely abstract, glory. When Sun announced the Java processor line in 1996, Java was an untested, but exciting concept.

To ensure that the programming language would gain popularity, Sun said that it would develop a chip, then called "picoJava," that would efficiently run Java in set-top boxes and the like. Sun initially said it would both make the chip as well as license the design. Large chip vendors, including IBM, LG Semicon and Fujitsu signed up as licensees.

The licensees, however, have been "suspiciously silent," said Turley. "What he is really saying is that there is no demand for Java chips."

The chip family's demise largely comes down to a mismatch between the chip's design and the needs of device makers.

As designed, the Java chip is a costly and consumes lots of power, especially in comparison to other embedded chips based around designs from MIPS and Advanced Risc Machines.

The MicroJava 701, for instance, needs 3 watts of power to work, said Turley. StrongArm chips, by contrast, use one-third of a watt and are made on a production process that is one generation behind. Arm and MIPS chips are also cheap. Low-end versions start at $9. The Java Chips will likely cost more, especially if vendors have to use customized versions. Even McGann admits that customized chips only begin to pay for themselves when quantities get into the "hundreds of thousands" range.

In addition, Arm, MIPS, and other embedded chips already adequately support Java. As a result, the licensees have little motivation to make a Java Chip design as device manufacturers can now get Java support with the more generic chips.

"It's not fast enough. It's not cheap enough. It's not any of the stuff they thought it would be," said Turley.

In a much publicized demonstration, Scott McNealy showed off a ring that contained a prototype of a Java chip embedded in a ring. When pointed at a car, the ring would unlock the car door.

PicoJava 1, however, never came out. Before chips based around the design came out, Sun announced picoJava 2, which is the core technology for the MicroJava 701. To date, licensees have not announced chips based around the picoJava 2 core.

McGann, however, says it is a mistake to interpret the silence as a defeat. "We have seen working silicon from licensees," he said. Additionally, Sun has a team of engineers working on picoJava 3, which will be the core for successors to the 701. Sun's own version of the 701, however, is a "proof of concept." Next week's sample will not come out as a finished product.

In addition, Sun is developing a new generation of embedded processors based around its UltraSparc II chip, according to other executives at Sun. Sun will license this design to other vendors, any may sell the chip under its own name.