louis martin
cns news & features

Moscone Center, San Francisco--

Two weeks ago a Java product manager at Sun said he knew nothing about Java chips. Ditto said the division's PR manager. This week that was all the company seemed to want to talk about at the JavaOne show in San Francisco.

Well, almost all: the company also introduced a Java operating system, offering one more alternative for speeding up the execution of Java applets or programs.

PicoJAVA was the subject of Wednesday's afternoon "keynote" talk by Sun Microelectronics' Chief Architect, Marc Tremblay.

"It is a processor core for network computers, cellular phones, and traditional embedded applications," said Tremblay. It is the first of three Java processors planned by the newly formed microelectronics division of the company.

A key requirement for embedded applications is "robust programs." Said Tremblay, "By this we mean graceful recovery from crashes." Electric toasters, razors, and automobile components must recover when the software gets confused--without the aid of a systems engineer. Presumably picoJAVA would provide such easy recovery.

Another requirement of embedded systems is low cost--picoJAVA costs less than $25--but a low-cost processor is not enough. A processor that requires expensive ROM, DRAM, or other components to make it work is no bargain. Not in your toaster, anyway.

Currently the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) in the browser interprets "byte codes," which are partially compiled code for Java applets sent to a client machine. Execution is slow compared to fully compiled code. The company has promised a just-in-time (JIT) compiler that will speed up the process, but so far has failed to deliver the it. Two of its competitors have JITs--Symantec and Borland.

But a hardware implementation should be faster still. Moreover, a hardware implementation could eliminate the need for a JIT--at least for some applications.

Some of the instructions for the JVM are RISC-like, others CISC-like. What makes sense for the processor, said Tremblay, is implementing only those instructions that make a difference. Thus picoJava implements the JVM "through the use of the same methodology, process, and circuit techniques developed for our RISC processors," he said. Which is to say, picoJAVA is "RISCy."

While two weeks ago no one at Sun seemed to know about Java chips, this week they were ready to license the technology.

In addition to chips, Sun's JavaSoft division had another alternative for speeding up execution of Java programs--JavaOS, or a Java operating system. JavaSoft expects JavaOS to run on a variety of microprocessors--Intel's X486, Power PC, ARM, picoJAVA, etc.--with applications ranging from NC computers down to cellular phones and pagers. The range of applications is similar to those targeted by picoJAVA.

JavaSoft lists a number of companies it says intend to license their new operating system. The list includes some giants and a lot of unknowns. In addition, JavaSoft claims that Borland and Symantec plan to "adapt and enhance" their own Java development tools for the new operating system.

One company that intends to build an NC using the Java operating system along with one of the Java chips--ultraJAVA--is SunRiver Data Systems (not a Sun affiliate). SunRiver had a working prototype NC on display at the show, but it was neither powered by a Java chip nor running JavaOS. The prototype used Intel's 960 running the Java Virtual Machine on the Mach operating system developed at Carnegie Mellon University.

When the commercial version of the machine is available, according to Michael Stebel, Director of Alliance Marketing at SunRiver, it will run Sun's HotJava browser--rather than Netscape's popular browser. Because HotJava is written entirely in Java, it will run faster on the company's all-Java NC.

Sun has promised a commercial version of HotJava by the fourth quarter of this year, but ultraJAVA is not due out until the fourth quarter of 1997. Thus it is likely the NC will run some other processor when it is first introduced to market. SunRiver's NC will cost around $600, according to Stebel.



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