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Java OS headed to consumer gear

Sun Microsystems will ship a Java-based operating system to run on TVs, telephones, karaoke machines, and other consumer devices.

Sun Microsystems will ship a Java-based operating system to run on TVs, telephones, karaoke machines, and other consumer devices, the company announced today.

The company's SunSoft division is releasing a flavor of the Java OS for consumer devices that uses core Java technology from the JavaSoft division. The operating system, which has followed a convoluted development path, has been designed as the brains for Web phones, television set-top boxes, handheld computers, and other devices that need far less memory than a typical PC.

Java OS for Consumers is a hybrid of PersonalJava, a slimmed-down version of the Java that runs on desktop machines, and Chorus, a real-time operating system that Sun purchased last year. By adding Chorus--which on its own can run mission-critical systems such as telephone networks--Sun gives Java OS licensees a choice of running applications directly on the Chorus kernel either with or without Java.

With the announcement, Sun jumps into the growing competition over such devices, a market that is likely to boom in the next few years as more and more devices gain networking capabilities.

But the announcement also underscores the delicate balancing act that Sun must perform to maintain both its credibility as the Java standard bearer and the happiness of its shareholders. By entering the real-time operating system market, SunSoft actually competes with some of the companies that license Java from JavaSoft. Whether Sun succeeds in that market will ultimately come down to pricing, according to one analyst.

"In this space, price points are key," said Jeff Kinz, research manager for analyst firm International Data Corporation. "We're talking Sagan-esque volumes of processors per year. None of these companies can afford to go to any luxury pricing model."

Having a company license Java from JavaSoft isn't necessarily a win for SunSoft, either. Tele-Communications, Incorporated and Ericsson, two recent high-profile Java licensees, haven't licensed the Java OS for Consumers, according to James Hebert, general manager of SunSoft's embedded systems software division.

"TCI licensed PersonalJava for use across a set of operating systems, including Windows CE," Hebert said, but he declined to name other OSes.

Currently, the company's JavaSoft division develops the core Java technologies and licenses them to third parties who then build operating systems, applications, servers, and development tools. SunSoft is also a licensee and is not proferred preferential treatment or access to Java development secrets, Sun representatives insist.

If Sun is to build and to sell Java-based products that compete with third parties such as Netscape and IBM--companies that are also close collaborators in designing the core Java technologies--that duty usually falls to SunSoft.

That split personality is one reason allies and foes alike are keeping an eye on Sun's lead role in creating the Java specification and pushing it as an international standard. So far, Sun has received approval as the official submitter of Java to the International Organization for Standardization, which will now decide if the technology will be a standard.

The Java OS is an interesting case study in Sun's delicate balance. It originally grew up at JavaSoft, but about a year ago the company decided to push it as a competitive product and shifted its responsibility to SunSoft.

"[JavaSoft] started the Java OS and decided they couldn't provide the level playing field for other real-time OS vendors," Hebert said.

It now comes in three flavors: NC for network computers, Consumer, and Embedded for processors that use no more than about 500K of memory.

Licensees of Java OS products automatically receive the underlying Java technology and do not need to license it separately. If they want to use Java beyond the Java OS, however, they must negotiate a separate license with JavaSoft. For example, if Alcatel, which licenses Java OS for Consumers, wants to put Java into its networking equipment, the Java OS deal does not cover that use.

Java OS for Consumers will be ready for devices using PowerPC and Sparc processors on April 15. It will be available for ARM and Intel chips in the next three months.