Sun radiant over Jini magic in mobile networks

Mobile-crazed Japan viewed as huge Jini market

July 13, 1999 -- One of Sun Microsystems Inc.'s top engineers in Yokohama, Japan today positioned his company's Jini distributed computing architecture as the magic formula to fuse the freedom of mobile devices with the power of networks.

The message holds particular relevance in mobile-crazed Japan where on-the-go high schoolers already order tickets, send e-mail, and play games over their cell phones.

"The world where we are moving to is one where devices move around," said Jim Waldo, distinguished engineer at Sun, speaking at the Java Developer Conference 99 Tokyo here today. "We need to stop thinking about networks as statically placed machines, but as networks that can also move around."

In Sun's view, the future will offer a wireless community of mobile devices and peripherals that will need some way to talk to each other, Waldo said. The way they speak will be Jini, an architecture written in Sun's Java programming language enabling disparate kinds of devices, such as hard drives, printers, and mobile phones, to communicate easily over a network.

When a Jini-enabled device, such as a digital camera, is connected to a network, it sends out a message announcing itself and requesting services from other devices on the network. Another Jini-enabled devices, for instance, a printer, will "see" the message on a kind of virtual bulletin board, and send a message back offering its services. That return message will include data on how the printer is configured and what it needs to be activated. Devices never need to be configured to the network and they can be freely connected or disengaged from the network at any time, Waldo explained.

But for Sun to turn the Jini vision into reality, the company will probably require a strong vote of confidence in the technology from the Japanese developers and hardware makers attending the Java conference this week. Many of the attendees are the world's leading makers of the devices Sun wants to "Jiniize."

Though few vendors have disclosed specific details on their Jini development efforts, several Japanese electronics and computer makers are working with the technology, including Fujitsu Ltd., Sony Corp., Toshiba Corp., Seiko Epson, and NTT Mobile Communications Network Inc. (NTT DoCoMo).

An official at Sharp Corp. said today that his company is working with several partners, including the Yasuda Mutual Life Insurance Co. Ltd., on a system for the insurance industry that will enable Sharp's mobile devices to access data over a Jini-based network. The work should be completed by October, the Sharp official said, but he didn't provide further details.

Sun's Waldo emphasized the importance of mobile technologies in growing Jini, stating simply that it comes down to numbers. "There are more mobile phones sold today than there are computers sold," he said.

Some observers predict that in Japan the Jini technology will first appear in mobile phones. Japan is already an advanced market for mobile technology, with leading vendors here rushing out phone-based electronic commerce services. Sun argues that Jini will enhance those services.

Waldo said he foresees Jini-enabled stores where a customer's cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) is wirelessly connected to the store's network as soon as he or she walks into the store. Immediately, information about the price and availability of products becomes accessible on the individual's mobile device.

One cornerstone towards delivering on Waldo's vision will likely be Sun's recently announced deal with NTT DoCoMo, the largest cell-phone provider in Japan. The companies agreed in March of this year to incorporate Java and Jini into DoCoMo's i-mode phones.

Launched in February, the i-mode service provides users with banking, ticket reservation, e-mail, and limited Web surfing. I-mode has proved a hit here, with around 671,000 users as of yesterday, compared to the 277,000 Japanese who were using i-mode phones in early June, according to a DoCoMo spokesman.

The Japanese company will upgrade the service early next year with a Java-enabled phone that will offer more functionality, said Shigetaka Kurita, a content planner at DoCoMo. New gaming functions, online news, and increased banking security are among the new features that will be available on the company's P501i phone to be shipped in early 2000.

The P501i is built for DoCoMo by Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. At 13 centimeters tall, 4.3 centimeters wide and 2 centimeters thick and weighing just 89 grams, the P501i is not much bigger than a standard cell phone. The major physical difference is the LCD (liquid-crystal display) which takes up about half of the face or front of the phone.

Sun's Waldo contends that the Java and Jini architectures are more appropriate for next-generation devices such as the P501i because the technologies are more stable than the traditional operating systems used to run most computers.

"The unreliability we have come to expect with personal computers we won't accept with other devices. You will reboot your computer if it crashes, but if your microwave crashes you will take it back to the store," Waldo said.