MEME 4.04

In this issue of MEME:


by David S. Bennahum

Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems's President, co-founder, and arch-enemy of the "other Bill" is riffing on a favorite theme: the evil of Bill Gates and Microsoft. "Microsoft maliciously hijacked Java," Joy says, referring to Sun's foiled attempt at creating a way for the same program to run on any computer platform without modification. According to Joy, Microsoft so modified the Windows version of Java that its promise of universality was destroyed. "Microsoft is getting sued because they are not obeying the compatibility requirements," Joys explains, referring to a Sun lawsuit against Microsoft. "Microsoft was malicious," Joy repeats. Then he takes the high-ground, a favorite spot for Sun, a company whose corporate identity vacillates between the mantra "the network is the computer" and as last-defense against Microsoft's plans for world domination. "Microsoft has scared the bejesus out of everybody, and we are the only real alternative," Joy tells me. "Steve Jobs sold out Apple to resuscitate the company"-- an allusion to Microsoft's 1997 investment in Apple -- "We are a total free agent. It gives us an opportunity to do something better."

The something better in question is Jini, the cutely-named follow-up to Sun's 1995 launch of Java. Scheduled for release this fall, Jini, as Joy puts it, is supposed to be "the first software architecture for the coming wave of high-connectivity environments." What this means in plain language is that Jini will let different kinds of devices-- cell phones, laser printers, thermostats, desktop computers, automobiles-- share information by communicating to one another. For instance, a Jini-enabled air-conditioner could be connected to a home computer, and from there to the Internet and your office computer. While away at the office on a torrid summer day, you could control your air- conditioner, telling it to switch on 30 minutes before you head back for home, so you arrive in a cool house without having had to run the unit all day long. Were the air-conditioner to break, it could send a self-diagnostic message to the service company, listing what parts it needs, allowing for quicker, more efficient repair.

The beauty of Jini-- in principle-- is that these devices don't need to be programmed to speak to every kind of possible device on the planet. Instead, much as a fax machine "handshakes" with another machine, figuring out speed settings and image quality, Jini-enabled devices will figure out how they can communicate and what they can communicate. So by plugging in a Jini-enabled cell phone into a Jini-enabled printer, the phone could send your stored address list onto a piece of paper without needing any special one-of-a-kind interface. Jini acts as a match-making service for anything with a computer chip and communications port. Two appliances that want to speak use Jini to look up the right protocol, a translation-table of sorts. Those protocols are written by whoever creates the appliance and can be stored for easy retrieval on the Internet by Sun. Since the protocol is in Jini, the second appliance can understand how to communicate with the first. It's a system not unlike the way Internet Domain Name Servers turn a string of letters, say into a string of Internet Protocol numbers ( in this case), numbers that are actually what's identifying the destination of packets of data going in and out of your computer as you surf Sun's Web site. According to Joy, what's made Jini possible is the pervasiveness of the Internet, combined with the supposed propagation of Java. The former creates a universal communication network for appliances to hook into, the latter is the programming language that Jini is written in. The payoff, Joy argues, is potentially huge.

"We're talking about something that can be put on a stapler, a tennis shoe, any device in the office," Joy explains. It's a strategy similar to the "Intel inside" campaign that Intel successfully launched in 1995. Every personal computer with an Intel chip bears somewhere the Intel logo of a swirl. Similarly, Sun imagines a future where myriad consumer products, from stereos to refrigerators and cars, bear a Jini logo (scheduled for unveiling in January). Like Intel, Sun will not dictate the kind of software that can be created with Jini, nor will it claim a commission on sales (although it will collect small royalty payments earmarked for trademark protection). Instead, Sun's revenue will come from building new Jini-based "network services," according to Mike Clary who is responsible for managing the Jini project.

Jini's launch is nearly a perfect copy of the company's 1995 hugely succesful launch of Java. Back then, Sun released Java without fanfare, simply putting up the source code, documentation, and some sample programs on their Web site. Within weeks the buzz online was that Java would become the de-facto lingua franca of the computer industry, finally ending the division between PCs, Macintoshes, mainframes, workstations, and anything else with a computer chip in it. Instead of Balkanized systems, Java promised "write once, read everywhere"-- meaning a programmer could write one set of instructions and have them run on any computer with a Java "engine," or programming environment, something close to an operating system. While Java first worked as cybernetic voodoo in 1995-- within a few months of launch over 100,000 people had download versions of the Java development kit, Sun's share price had risen sharply, and Netscape's had plummeted while Microsoft's stagnated-- the Java reality-distortion field quickly weakened.

Java programs were slow to run, and relegated to animated sections of Web browsers, a form of CD-ROM multimedia lite for the Net. Java's fatal flaw was that it required significant customization from system to system. Instead of "write once, read everywhere" programmers often found they were back to "write once, read once." Crucial to this failure was the complicated nature of linking Java programs to the "user interface"-- the windows, icons, and desktop environment-- of different systems. Netscape wound up creating a "flavored" version of the Java environment in its browser, thus forcing Java programmers to make their code a little less universal. Microsoft went all the way, dousing Java with so many "flavors" that it became an entirely different brew. This led to Sun's suing Microsoft for violating the terms of the Java developers license, which, in part, requires developers to stay true to universal Java-compatibility. Instead of Java becoming a "paradigm shift" as guru-marketing types like to say, it became yet another example of bold, visionary computer dreaming interrupted by reality, what others call vaporware. Jini could be Java 2.0, another iteration of a big, bold idea that evaporates once it's actually taken out of the lab.

When I ask Joy whether Jini's headed down the same path Java took, he points out that this time around Sun is not dealing with rival computer or software manufacturers. The audience for Jini comes from another universe: consumer goods. "The companies that are doing the pagers and the personal digital assistants do not have the weird political intentions that companies in the computer industry have. They are more willing to pick up a solution and just use it," Joy says. "This is like Java but breaking out of the computer industry. We are talking to car companies. It is Fortune 500 corporations we're talking to, not the top 20 computer companies." To date, Sun has confirmed publicly that Epson, Canon, Seagate, Quantum, and Federal Express have agreed to embed Jini in some of their systems. Equally important to Jini's survival, and far more subtle, is the fact that disk drive makers, car companies, and pager manufacturers tend to be skilled at user-interface systems that have nothing to do with mice, windows, or icons. Once you're out of the realm of standard PC interfaces dealing with things like LCD screens on telephones, buttons in a car's dashboard or on a printer, you are in the territory of age-old ergonomics. It's the difference between the genius behind the buttons on a Sony Walkman and the idiocy of a "dialog box" in Windows 98.

If Jini can let people easily and intuitively access powerful computer networks, and myriad arrays of appliances-- say by going to the touch- screen on your fridge you could somehow tell your car to start the engine and warm up on a freezing morning-- as easily as one picks up the telephone and places a call today, then Sun will have product worthy of the moniker "breakthrough." Tactically speaking, however, it doesn't matter if Jini fulfills on its high-tech promise. On the Internet "mind share" and "market share" of "attention" are the benchmarks by which companies are deemed successful, allowing Amazon.Com to be worth more than Barnes & Noble, even though it has a small fraction of latter's sales. In that world, Jini is poised to do some Java-like mind-warping. With a strong release this fall, measured in thousands, perhaps millions of Jini development kit downloads, coupled with bold press releases from consumer companies announcing their intention to embrace Jini, Sun's stock should get a nice lift. Whether GM can ever use Jini to sell cars hardly matters. In a universe where hype begets billions, Jini looks like a winner.

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