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PC World

Will Sun's Jini grant your wishes?


Sun initiative promises a PC-free, painlessly networked world.

January 28, 1999
Web posted at: 5:10 p.m. EST (2210 GMT)

by Glenn McDonald

(IDG) -- Sun Microsystems has a dream: The future of computing will not center around the personal computer, but around the network itself. Any network will do -- your office Ethernet grid, your home-office local area network, the Internet; it doesn't matter.

Sun has carried this banner for years, and essentially cemented its network-centric computing model with the invention of the Java programming language. This week in San Francisco, Sun -- with 37 big-name partners -- unveiled Jini, its latest and most ambitious initiative yet. A programming platform and connection technology, Jini is designed to allow painless immediate networking of any and all compliant electronic devices, be they personal digital assistants, cell phones, dishwashers, printers, and so on. Partnering companies include hardware and software vendors, and marquee consumer electronics players like Sony.

Sun dreams of connecting devices in ad-hoc networks whenever the need arises. What's more, it has a deliberately take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward a little device called the personal computer.

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New world order?

"It's time for a new model for home and business computing," said Sun Chief Operating Officer Ed Zander at Monday's unveiling. "The PC will no longer be the primary access device to the network. This is the beginning of what we believe will be a post-PC era."

Zander says Sun expects Jini will emulate the simplicity and ubiquity of the telephone. You should be able to plug any device into a network, be it your home network or the Internet, and immediately get what Zander called a Web tone. Because products built with Jini technology do not require any particular operating system, hardware, or application environment, these devices should be able to communicate immediately.

How these products use the network will vary with how developers design their wares. For example, in a local network, some may use a home's existing phone lines or electric wiring. Some will communicate wirelessly, via infrared or radio wave. Then there's the Internet.

"We envision a world of personal networking where Jini is the infrastructure," says Bill Joy, chief Jini architect, Sun cofounder and company vice president. "There's no central control, no monopolist pulling the strings," he added in a pointed aside.

Sun is trying to sell the idea that it doesn't matter how your device works, or who made it, or how it connects. As long as it features Jini, you can plug it into any network and go.

Bypassing the PC

As an example, consider the digital camera. You generally have to use a PC to print the photos your digital camera takes. (A few printers now let you print directly). Your digital camera talks to your PC and your PC talks to your printer.

Sun says that Jini would let you could go directly from camera to printer via a network, whether locally or remotely. Plug your camera into a phone line and, depending on your network, you could print a picture in the upstairs office, or over in the HR department, or out in your Tokyo office.

At Sun's recent show, a series of corporate officials trotted out to demonstrate various potential applications. With a home network, you could download a movie via your cable modem to a DVD burner, then watch it on your new high-definition TV. Your dishwasher could go online automatically when it detects a malfunction and be remotely diagnosed by the manufacturer's servers, which would then send an e-mail to your PDA with instructions. That PDA plus your cell phone could network with your bank, enabling you to pay for a cab with the touch of a button.

Sun and its third-party supporters would develop different types of "browsers" or "choosers" to provide a central software interface for your network. You could operate the software using, say, your TV and remote control. There's not a PC in sight.

Will it catch on?

It's all very heady, but the point remains that Sun's Jini initiative will compete directly with Microsoft's Universal Plug and Play. That approach promises similar features, but remains PC-centric. Sun also faces competing interoperability projects from Sony and Cisco.

And the fact of the matter is that people are used to working with their PCs and existing home entertainment systems. If you're in the habit of editing and cropping your digital camera images in your favorite Windows graphics program, you're not likely to break that habit for no good reason.

"The PC is not gonna go away that quickly," says Dataquest analyst Davidpaul Doyle. "They have a pretty loose definition of the 'post PC era.' The fact is that most people use the PC as their gateway to the network."

Still, Sun certainly offered a sense of momentum. The 37 partners at Jini's unveiling showed there's sufficient interest in this technology. Sun now offers full public code online for downloading. The first Jini-enabled products are expected before the end of the year.

Those big-name partners are nothing to sneeze at, but until Jini is widely adopted by a much broader spectrum of electronics manufacturers, Jini is still only a dream.

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