Feature: Java -- coming to a TV near you?

WebTV Networks and Acorn Computer Group rush to put Java in television

Accessing the Internet through television set-top boxes has been, for the most part, an experience akin to surfing the Web through America Online Inc. back in early 1995 -- basically, what you had was a proprietary online service with a gateway to the Internet via a rudimentary browser with no Java support.

However, set-top-box developers such as WebTV Networks Inc. and Acorn Computer Group PLC are speedily introducing set-top-box browsers and display technologies with Java support that promise to let users view any Java application -- from a small applet to a word processor -- on their television screens.

But will Java on a television screen add anything desirable to the Internet TV experience? And will users want to type letters and run spreadsheets on their television sets?

Set-top-box reference design vendors -- those who build distinct operating systems, browsers, and applications for their own boxes -- think the answer is yes. Java applications are the answer to gaining a wide range of applications for set-top boxes, no matter what the underlying operating system, the vendors say. And some Java applications would lend themselves perfectly to the interactive television domain, according to Acorn and WebTV. For example, a chat program written in Java would let users watch a TV program and, at the same time, talk with a friend about what is happening.

Plus, people will want to use regular applications, such as a word processor, through their TV as well, the vendors say.

Java programming at 11

When Microsoft Corp. acquired set-top-box reference design developer and television online service provider WebTV Networks last April, the world took a second look at Internet access via the "tube." WebTV has its own operating system, browser, e-mail client, and online service -- but not for long. Microsoft plans to put Windows CE on the WebTV boxes. Even though WebTV set-top boxes will run Windows CE, the company was quick to say it will continue its work with PersonalJava -- a small footprint version of the Java language for Internet devices -- in order to build a Java virtual machine into the WebTV browser.

Right now the WebTV platform supports JavaScript (the scripting language that most browsers can interpret without the need of a Java virtual machine), but not Java. Plans to incorporate a Java virtual machine into the WebTV platform most likely will be closely tied to implementing Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser on the devices, say many observers, but sources from WebTV would not elaborate on these plans.

Earlier this month, Acorn Computer Group -- a Cambridge, England-based network computer and set-top-box company that produces technologies in competition with WebTV -- announced it would embed Java support into its TVCentric display technology using PersonalJava. TVCentric is a set of classes of Acorn's RISC processor-based operating system (RISC OS) for network computing devices that lets HTML be displayed on a TV screen, said Kevin Coleman, an Acorn spokesman. By making the TVCentric class libraries available to Java code, Java applets and applications will also be able to take advantage of the TVCentric display technology, Coleman said.

Last April, Acorn released a Java virtual machine called RISCafe. However, RISCafe currently does not support the company's TVCentric display technology, which means Java applications viewed over the RISCafe browser blur and flicker on TV screens, Coleman said. The new RISCafe, with support for TVCentric, will be out in the fourth quarter this year, Coleman said.

Java: Will you tune in?

Some industry observers aren't so sure Java can offer much for users who will buy set-top boxes to surf the Internet: These aren't savvy 'Netheads, but rather people who want to check out a few sites, write a couple of e-mails, and view TV programming -- that's about it, said several observers.

"People don't really care if they have Java on a set-top box," said Jolanda Goverts, an analyst at London-based Ovum Ltd. "Java is not a selling point in the residential market." The most important application for Internet TV is e-mail, and users don't want to do regular PC applications on their TV, she said.

"People won't sit behind their television and work on spreadsheets," Goverts said.

Even on a PC people aren't using full-blown Java applications, such as word processors, said Greg Blatnick, an analyst at Zona Research in Mountain View, CA. On a set-top box, users would be even less likely to run such applications, he said. Right now, Internet television users would just get to see spinning logos or ticker tapes if set-top browsers supported Java, since that is about all that is out there, he said.

While applets could enhance the television-based browsing experience, widespread availability of full-scale Java applications -- what the vendors are hoping will drive wide-scale adoption of set-top boxes -- is still a long way off, Blatnick said. Plus, it isn't even clear that set-top-box users care if they ever see an applet or use a Java application, he added.

While it's true that Java will give set-top-box operating systems access to more applications, what applications does a user want on a set-top box?, asked David Card, an analyst at IDC Link in New York.

As another challenge, hardware constraints in today's set-top-box designs make it nearly impossible today for users to download large Java applications -- mainly because the boxes have limited or no hard-drive space and little memory, both of which are needed to run Java applications. In addition, most set-top-box users currently are using 28.8Kbps modems to surf the Internet, and large applications coming over that bandwidth could take forever to load.

"Java is not as small as Sun would have you believe," Card said. "It remains to be seen which Java applications will run on a TV set without more RAM or ROM or a hard drive," he said.

"The issue with Java is that it takes a serious amount of performance in hardware design to adequately run," agreed Blatnick. Memory and temporary storage would be required on the boxes, further pushing up costs, he said.

The whole idea of a set-top box is to make it really easy to use, without an array of unnecessary applications and available at a low price, Blatnick said. Java applications on your TV screen have the potential to be a great thing -- if hardware manufacturers find a way to install RAM and hard drives while keeping costs down, and if bandwidth issues are solved through the use of cable modems or other such technologies, he said.

However, content operators would have to find a way to make it easy for people to use Java applications -- maybe by pushing the applications to users when they click a button or something similar -- in order for Java to take off on a set-top box, Card said. The whole idea of a set-top box is an easy-to-use interface with managed content behind it, he said.

WebTV recently announced that its new WebTV Plus design will feature a hard drive, possibly in anticipation of its upcoming reliance on having Windows CE residing on the machine, and a 56Kbps modem. The current Acorn design doesn't include a hard drive, but it does include a standard 8 megabytes of RAM, which the company says is sufficient to run Java applications.

In the future, WebTV boxes will most likely bundle some Windows CE applications on the hard drive, so Java applications will have to compare in quality to those CE applications in order to entice users to download them, Card said. Acorn and the other set-top-box designers who have trumpeted the no-hard-drive NC model (such as the Sun Microsystems Inc.-backed Diba Inc. and the Oracle Corp.-Netscape Communications Corp. link-up known as Navio Communications Inc.) will have to rely on developers creating very small Java applications that will be able to run on set-top boxes and at the same time equal the performance of Windows CE applications. Not an easy task, Card said.

Turning on Java

The other problem with using Java on your television seems to be that there is much talk and little action. Acorn and WebTV may promise Java support, but none of the set-top boxes out there seem to have browsers with full Java support, Card said. The WebTV boxes support JavaScript right now but not Java itself, he said. And the RCA box, which is built on Acorn technology, doesn't use Acorn's RISCafe Java virtual machine or any other Java virtual machine for that matter, Card said. Other set-top box companies have big plans for Java, but there don't seem to be any boxes available on the market today that have full Java support, he said.

The race is on to see who can support Java first, analysts said. Right now WebTV has a confusing strategy with Windows CE, say many observers. Though the company has pledged to support Java, it is obviously very important for the company to support Windows CE applications as well, analysts said. Acorn -- and probably Diba and Navio when they come out with full-fledged set-top-box product designs -- will push for Java support across the board.

Who will win the most users is still unclear, especially because more and more industries are getting involved with set-top boxes, Goverts said. With the advent of digital television, which promises to deliver not only hundreds of channels but also interactive services and Internet access, broadcasting companies will want to offer set-top boxes with support for digital signals and the Internet. Set-top-box designers will have to support digital TV signals and watch out for TV manufacturers offering their own digital television boxes with Internet support, she said.

In addition, start-ups around the world plan to launch their own set-top boxes based on their own hardware and software designs. For example, France's Multimedia Network Computer SA (MNC) plans to release two set-top boxes later this month. MNC's products will be based on chips from Cyrix Corp. and will use Microsoft's Windows 95 as the core operating system. By 1998, the company plans to release a set-top box running a Java-based operating system, which it says is more stable and reliable than Windows.

Whatever company can offer the easiest-to-use and cheapest device will be amply rewarded. By the year 2005, there will be 51.2 million set-top boxes in use around the world, according to Ovum. But whether or not the set-top boxes of the near and far future will make your TV into a lean Java machine remains to be seen.

Acorn, based in Cambridge, England, can be reached at +44-1223-725-000 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.acorn.co.uk/. WebTV can be reached in Palo Alto, CA, at +1-650-614-5500 or on the World Wide Web at http://www.webtv.net/.