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Sun: Speeding Java for cell phones

The computing giant says new software technology makes Java run at least five times faster on gadgets such as cell phones.

SAN FRANCISCO--Sun Microsystems said new software technology makes Java run at least five times faster on gadgets such as cell phones, a move that could help make Java more useful and therefore thwart Microsoft's attempts to expand beyond PCs.

Sun's technology, code-named Monty and first discussed Monday at Sun's JavaOne conference here, speeds up a crucial piece of Java called the virtual machine. The virtual machine translates Java programs into instructions a computing device can understand and is a key bottleneck compared with writing software directly for the device.

Sun has won a place for Java in many companies' cell phones and sees the devices as a way to let people access Internet services without using a computer running Microsoft Windows. But Java in cell phones still is rough around the edges, and few applications so far rely on the software.

Monty was written in 18 months by the team that wrote the HotSpot virtual machine that runs on current versions of Java for servers and for desktop computers, said Rich Green, Sun vice president of Java and XML, in an interview. The software, while not yet a product, is running in cell phone makers' labs, he said.

Monty--named after the movie The Full Monty for reasons Green declined to detail--works in conjunction with special-purpose chips also designed to speed up chips.

"We do a lot of stuff in Monty that's not being done on the chip," he said, adding that Sun is working with ARM Holdings, a top cell phone processor maker, on the technology.

Monty competes with virtual machines from Sun partners, though. For example, IBM sells a virtual machine called J9 for cell phones, handheld computers and other portable devices.

Java inroads
Java has made inroads both with phone manufacturers and the network operators that sell phone service to customers, but hurdles remain.

Nokia, the top maker of cell phones, earlier estimated it will have shipped 50 million Java-enabled phones by the end of this year and 100 million by the end of 2003. Nokia backed away from those estimates Tuesday, however, with one source saying that as few as 10 million will ship this year.

That's still a lot of phones though--especially when measured against the still-nascent "Stinger" phones from Microsoft. And Vodafone, which sells services to one in four cell phone customers, believes Java will help boost cell phone games from Atari and others.

Amit Pau, chief executive of Vodafone's global business and partner market group, demonstrated a 3D color car racing game written in Java running on a cell phone during Sun CEO Scott McNealy's keynote address Tuesday. Vodafone Japanese subsidiary J-Phone Communications shipped 4 million Java-enabled phones in the last 6 months, he said, with Java used for viewing pictures and playing games.

Now Sun is trying to outflank Microsoft by building Web services features into Java-powered cell phones.

The original goal for Monty, though, didn't include Web services capabilities, Green said.

"I didn't tell them at the time that it had to do Web services because they would have flipped," Green said. The developers had enough on their plates as it was--trying to speed up Java execution on a battery-operated machine with a hundredth the processing power and memory of a PC.

News.com's Ben Charny contributed to this report.