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CNN's Greg Lefevre reports on a new product from Sun Microsystems
Windows Media 28K 80K


Surfing Silicon Valley: The preachings of the 'Anti-Gates'

By San Francisco Bureau Chief Greg Lefevre


SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- The quote of last week came from Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems:

"One of the big opportunities here is that is if you noticed we never plugged anything into the personal computer. The personal computer is not the center of the universe here."

He was demonstrating Jini, as in "Genie" of magic lamp fame. It's the latest, no-desktop-required software invention. Remember that McNealy is the "Anti-Gates" that so many in Redmond warn us about. It's a role that he loves and relishes.

McNealy's Jini is in fact really cool. It is tiny, ultra slim software that lets one computerized appliance speak to another, regardless of what they are.

The beauty of the product is in its simplicity.

Example: Sun says your dishwasher will have a diagnostic chip in it so that when the dishwasher doesn't work, the manufacturer can call it up on the Jini network and ask it what's wrong. Cool.

Silly, too. My dishwasher at home has about three moving parts, the timer the door and the pump. If one breaks, I plug in a replacement.

OK, so the dishwasher isn't such a great example, but the main point Sun makes is most important; We may not need a PC to run our lives after all. (Is that cheering I hear?)

There are three other important points that have to do with Sun's Jini.

Point One:

Those of us who've labored long and hard over our desktop computers have long believed that they are too much trouble to operate and maintain for the benefit they give us. I remember writing my first Basic program with the assistance of an Altair salesman at a computer show in the late '70s.

Line 10 Print " Miles Driven"
Line 20 Input x

About 10 minutes later I'd done enough typing to instruct the machine to figure out my car's mileage. But why waste all that time when I could do it instantly in my head?

Two-hundred-twenty miles, 10 gallons (it was in Texas where everything is 10 gallons) equals 22 miles per gallon. Then, the computer was more trouble than it was worth.

To many, it still is.

The Macintosh made life less complicated ... not a lot easier, but somewhat so. But I digress. Back to the "Anti-Gates" and Jini.

Point Two:

Jini will first appear in office machines like printers and scanners with the program automatically helping each to understand commands from the other, without first being told by a computer what to do.

That's joyful news from Bill Joy, the Sun guru whom McNealy credits with bringing Jini to fruition.

"Jini's different from personal computers because Jini's simple. It's only 35,000 lines of code," Joy says. (Compared to tens of millions in other operating systems.)

"There's no complicated operating system. In fact there's nearly no operating system at all," he said, making another stab at Microsoft. "Jini provides a simple infrastructure on which anyone can create a Jini device or service. There's no central control. No monopolist pulling the strings."

Did he really say that?

Sun wants Jini magic to work with TVs, home appliances, cell phones and automobiles as well as PCs and printers. The company has lots corporate friends in the Jini camp. Thirty-seven major companies have signed on to put Jini chips in their appliances. Companies like Epson, Kodak, Xerox, Sharp, Sony, Motorola, Phillips, Novel, Cisco, 3Com and Seagate. America Online is in on it, too.

Kinko's will install a Jini network that allows a document at one shop to be printed at any other. The possibilities there are wonderful. It's a fax with fidelity, like Adobe Acrobat portable document files without needing a computer.

Sun's Mike Clary, a devoted deputy Anti-Gates, says Jini represents independence from the computer system instead of reliance on it, a direct counter to the Windows, NT, MAC establishment.

"It doesn't need a central brain or the central mediator. All of these devices take care of their own behavior on the network in general. It's not dependent upon another machine on the network.

"If the dishwasher goes away the network still functions. If the TV goes away the network still runs. All of the of other devices are still available."

Point Three:

At the same time, Microsoft announced it, too, is working on a similar system of simple, universal control software. It does require a computer to operate it, albeit a small one. That small computer will of necessity be running a Microsoft operating system.

The Microsoft product is not out just yet. In Silicon Valley that used to be called vaporware; now it's just part of the hype called development announcements intended to blunt the other guy's product introduction.

It is so much fun to watch these two so predictable companies go after each other. Maybe some good will come of it. We might just ... someday ... get computerized products that are, in fact, easier to use.

Surf on ...

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