JavaOne's Palm-sized winner

How 3Com stole the show, palms down

The best thing about the recent JavaOne conference in San Francisco wasn't the keynote speeches from industry leaders, or the technical sessions, or the vendor exhibition in the pavilion, or even the food or outdoor concerts or endless parties at night. It was the Palm V, made by 3Com, which JavaOne attendees could purchase for less than half the going retail price. In fact, an attendee would have been a fool not to take advantage of such a bargain. This piece of equipment, normally priced around 00, easily fits in your hand or your pocket, and is the envy of all who do not posses one. Heck, if attendees changed their mind after purchasing one for 99, they could turn around and sell it on eBay for a profit. But I'd be willing to bet my own brand-new Palm V that not one of the 20,000 JavaOne attendees who chose to purchase one did so. That's because the Palm is just so cool -- especially given that Java's now on it.

The big giveaway

The benefits to Sun of practically giving away the Palm V at the conference are clear: Sun gets to show off the power of Java running on a tiny little machine, reward each JavaOne attendee for showing up, and inspire all those developers to attend again next year and see what new goody they'll be getting. All that makes sense. (Word on the street was that Sun paid 3Com full price -- or at cost, at least -- for the Palm Vs and then gave JavaOne attendees the gift of getting them for much less, thereby taking on the financial hit itself.) But what was in it for 3Com? As someone who despises today's ever-increasing barrage of advertising and marketing, I have to applaud 3Com for its forward-thinking marketing technique on this one. The PDA manufacturer aptly realized that the best development tool for the Palm is Java and, having established a partnership with Sun, it needed Java developers -- lots of them, and good ones -- to start making stuff for the device. The more applications available to Palm users, and the bigger the variety of apps, the better place the company has in the market.

Palm Computing Inc., a subsidiary of 3Com, is undoubtedly leading the global personal companion device market, with a 72 percent user share, according to recent IDC statistics. On the developer side, an official at A&R Partners, Palm Computing's public relations firm, says that 20,000 third-party Palm application developers are currently signed up to develop for the Palm platform -- twice as many as last year.

According to Palm Computing President Robin Abrams, "The ability to run Java applications on our products opens up development to tens of thousands of Java developers creating both consumer and business solutions that can now be extended to our platform." Appealing to Java developers was just the next step in growing the massive cult following that the Palm has. And where could 3Com quickly find a large number of good Java programmers? At JavaOne, of course. This was a win-win success all around -- for 3Com, for Sun, and best of all, for JavaOne attendees.

You've come a long way, baby

JavaWorld's coverage of the 1998 JavaOne Developer Conference included the article " Palm Pilots ubiquitous at JavaOne, despite device's current decaffeinated status." Back then, many people at the show were toting Palm Pilot Pros, and the 3Com booth exhibitors were showing off the then brand-new Palm III. 3Com demonstrated its commitment to Java by releasing the Conduit Development Kit (Java Edition), which allowed a programmer to design a Java application on the desktop, transfer the data from the application to the device through a conduit, and access the data through an application already present on the Palm. But Java-developing Palm owners couldn't do much more with Java than treat the PDA as the front end to a desktop-based application. Because 3Com at the time couldn't get a JVM to work on the limited-resourced Palm -- even the smallest working JVMs at that time were just too bulky for the Palm operating system -- developers were stuck with C/C++ as the only comprehensive programming option.

A lot has changed in 14 months. The most important development has been Sun's release of its new small-footprint KVM (K Virtual Machine, formerly known as the KJava VM) for consumer devices, which uses just 40 to 128 KB of memory -- far less than the 1 MB JVM Palm with which developers were experimenting last year.

As a result, developers can extend information and applications based on Java to the Palm device, in order to provide a number of services:

  • Wireless and wired access to corporate e-mail
  • Secure, Internet-based e-commerce and electronic banking services
  • Intranet data access for mobile applications, such as sales force automation, health care, transportation, and restaurant service

These examples only scratch the surface of the vast possibilities implicit in the union of Java and the Palm V.

The KVM and the JavaOne Hackathon

JavaOne attendees who bought Palm Vs found the new devices already loaded up with the developer's release of the KVM, along with a variety of KVM-based applications, such as a customized JavaOne scheduler (identical to but separate from the built-in date book application), news channel receivers, and a number of infrared games designed to get JavaOne attendees to talk to each other while tapping away on their Palm screens.

The KVM loaded on the JavaOne-ready Palm V lists the Java classes found on the Palm Computing device

Sun demonstrated its confidence in the ease of developing KVM-based Palm applications by sponsoring the Hackathon that ran during the course of the JavaOne conference. Hackathon competitors entered a variety of innovative applications in the contest, from David Fox's useful WhiteBoard, which allows you to draw a picture and infrared-beam it to any other KVM device, to Michael Lagally's PalmTracker, which promotes human interaction by finding other Palm carriers via an infrared contact signal, to Kenneth Moreland's Nerd_Finder, which simply spins an arrow around on the screen and inspires you to go talk to whomever is on the receiving end of the arrow.

In the KJava Playground, the conference computer lab, the air was heavy with silence, a stark contrast to the noisy hubbub of the JavaOne Pavilion adjacent to it. Here, Hackathon competitors pounded out KVM-based Palm apps for hours.

John Brewer, proprietor of Jera Design and winner of the "Most Visionary App" Hackathon award for his SolitaireJB Palm application, gestured toward his fellow Java developers in the lab and remarked, "Some of these guys have been in this room for the past two days, working on their Palm app. As soon as they bought their Palm, they ignored the rest of the show and came in here and started programming away."

On the horizon

Sun and 3Com plan to continue working together to develop a way to deliver content and Java applications to Palm Computing devices via Sun's software products. The companies are also exploring opportunities to integrate Sun software with 3Com's Palm.net service, the recently-announced wireless Internet access and messaging service for the Palm VII organizer; the latter product features a built-in two-way wireless radio with an integrated antenna. But right now, I'm perfectly content playing with the Palm V version of the organizer -- a compelling keepsake from JavaOne '99.

An 11-year veteran of the Internet and a former Internet technology consultant, Mariva H. Aviram is an independent writer covering the high-tech industry. Mariva's published works include articles in c|net, JavaWorld, NetscapeWorld (including developing and writing the Webmaster Q&A column), and InfoWorld. Mariva is also the author of XML For Dummies Quick Reference and Palm Computing for Dummies Quick Reference (publication pending). For more information, visit http://www.mariva.com.

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