Windows Fades, Sun's Java Shines

Back to Contents of Issue: February 2002


As wireless devices proliferate, will Windows become irrelevant?

by Daniel Scuka

Unless you've spent the past decade cloistered at a mountaintop retreat (and in Japan, some have of course), you'll have heard of -- or used products developed by -- Microsoft, the 900-lb gorilla of desktop software. The Redmond, Washington-based behemoth has become famous for its Windows operating system, its Microsoft Office PC productivity package, its Internet Explorer browser, and -- last but not least -- for the ongoing antitrust case, now in the settlement phase.

In April 2000, Microsoft was found to have, unsurprisingly, illegal monopoly control of software on desktop PCs, which allowed it to stifle competition. In November 2001, the US Justice Department and Microsoft agreed that the company would provide more than $1 billion worth of software, refurbished PCs, and other resources to some 12,500-plus American schools as a remedy.

Several US state attorneys-general, however, chose not to join in the settlement, claiming the proposed payment was insufficient, among other objections. Connecticut Attorney-General Richard Blumenthal, for one, said the settlement 'has too many gaps and ambiguities.' Negotiations were still underway as of press time. But at least some industry observers are asking, 'Who cares?' David Berlind, a Web columnist on ZDNet, recently pointed out that so much has happened on the technology landscape since the legal proceedings against Microsoft began in October 1997 that the Justice Department now finds itself clamping down on something that has become -- and will continue to be -- increasingly irrelevant: Microsoft's control over the desktop.

Five years ago, when almost all of us were accessing the Internet and corporate networks via high-power, heavyweight PCs, Microsoft's control of the PC platform was overwhelming. Further, Microsoft successfully attracted legions of Windows developers who wrote applications, naturally enough, for the most widespread software platform. Today, argue Berlind and others, we are shifting to new modes of access -- primarily comprising cellphones, personal digital assistants like the Palm and, in Japan, the Sharp Zaurus and Sony CliE and other portable devices -- all increasingly connected via wireless. In other words, wrote Berlind, 'If the desktop loses its grip, so too could Microsoft.' And if corporate America led the mid-1990s charge to adopt the desktop, giving Microsoft its monopoly control, it is Japan that is leading the adoption of wireless-enabled, portable devices. And this time, the key software is Java, made by Sun Microsystems of Palo Alto, California.

Java allows developers to write relatively small programs that can be downloaded over wireless networks and run on constrained devices that have slower processor speeds and smaller memory capacities than desktop PCs. Java applications on both small and large digital devices offer almost everything that programs written for Windows PCs offer, including gaming and entertainment, financial information managers, productivity applications, mail and other communications, and database and enterprise connectivity. Devices that run these applications are sold with a Java environment pre-installed.

Japan has become paramount to Sun's efforts to have Java adopted on as many digital devices, appliances, smart cards, and cellphones as possible. November's three-day JavaOne conference in Yokohama marked the first time that the annual Sun developer event was held outside the US. Eric Chu, group manager at Sun's software systems group admits that for mobile, Japan is perhaps even more important than the US. 'Japan's mobile service providers are ahead of the rest of the world,' he says, and the numbers seem to back him up.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo had sold 9.4 million Java-enabled cellular phones by December 2, and this figure was increasing by about a million per month. Competitors J-Phone and KDDI/Au have launched Java-enabled handsets of their own. Japan also has its own localized versions of Java. One, called J-Blend, is sold by Tokyo-based Aplix, and can be found on more than 2 million cellphones and digital cameras made by Sony, Toshiba, Sharp, Hitachi, Mitsubishi and Casio.

Furthermore, in June 2001, Sun announced a deal with UK-based ARM to provide Java compatibility on ARM's Jazelle-series of microprocessors. ARM chips are used on a huge number of portable devices including the Compaq iPaq and Hewlett-Packard Jornada PDAs, and on Ericsson, Kyocera, NEC, Nokia, Panasonic, Sanyo, Sony and Toshiba cellphones. The deal more or less guarantees that the embedded Java environment will find its way into many -- if not an outright majority -- of the world's portable devices and mobile phones. Sun says there will be 100 million Java devices by 2002, and that more than 200 million smart credit cards from the likes of American Express, Visa and Mastercard will be equipped with an embedded version of Java as well. It looks like it's a clean sweep for Java in the new space of wireless devices.



Ironically, even desktop PCs support Java. Microsoft's Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser are sold with a version of Java built-in so as to allow Web sites to send Java applications direct to desktop surfers' browsers. Or at least they were until Microsoft, in a fit of pique, decided to remove Java from Windows XP, forcing consumers and business users alike to download the Java environment, if they wanted it, on their own. With the number of Java-enabled devices on track to overtake the number of Windows-equipped PCs sometime in 2002, Microsoft clearly had little choice if it was to do anything to stem the Java tide.

Despite the buzz, however, Java is not without its shortcomings. While the embedded Java environment for cellphones and other small, portable devices -- referred to as Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) -- comprises a standard core, device manufacturers are free to extend the actual implementation on their specific products. As a result, Java applications written to download and run on one maker's devices may not do so on another's. This somewhat belies Sun's oft-repeated mantra that Java provides a universal 'write once, run anywhere' environment for all Java developers.

In Japan, DoCoMo's Java phones fall into this category, and, at least initially, only those developers who received DoCoMo's proprietary specifications could write applications for DoCoMo phones. Sun's Chu admits that this is a problem with DoCoMo's Java implementation, but he claims that 'with very few changes, content and applications can be ported to other Javas.' J-Phone and KDDI have been quick to point out that their Java implementations conform to the standard specifications, giving developers who write for J-Sky and EZweb a much wider target for their Java programs (see 'DoCoMo's Java Jive-Talkin',' April 2001, page 46).

Furthermore, Microsoft is by no means out of the picture and is fighting back with its Pocket PC 2002 portable device operating system. The Pocket PC OS is deployed on devices made by Audiovox, Casio, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Intermec, NEC and Toshiba, among others, and -- surprise, surprise -- doesn't include native Java support. Clearly, the question that some are asking is, if Sun wins the hearts and minds of Java developers and portable device users everywhere, are we simply replacing one monopolist heavyweight in the desktop space for another in the portable device space? Sun's CEO Scott McNealy has been one of the most vocal critics of Microsoft's monopoly position. But what about Sun itself?

It's unlikely that Sun will win a monopoly position like Microsoft's. Sun makes its money either by selling per-device licenses to the device manufacturer (it often simply gives the licenses away), or by selling the server software that provides the downloadable applications. Sales of the server software are much more profitable. But in this space, Sun is by no means the only player. IBM, Microsoft, a bevy of Linux vendors and many others all compete, making it much less likely for any one player to ever dominate. (Sun lost $158 million on revenues of $2.861 billion in the 2002 first quarter ended September 30, 2001.)

In the meantime, Java is making it possible for Japanese mobile content and application providers to create a large pool of software customized for cellphones, which may allow content from Japan to appear on minidevices elsewhere. KK Kang, Japan general manager for Korean technology VC firm KTB Network, says that Japanese content developers are hoping to use Korean companies to create and generate content for both wireless and broadband. 'Already, some 150 companies from Korea have come to Japan,' he says. Tokyo-based contents aggregator Cybird plans to provide content for the Dutch operator KPN Mobile when it starts its European version of i-mode in March. Clearly, a common software platform will make such efforts more efficient and lucrative for all involved. Looks like Java may turn out to be a winner. @

Daniel Scuka (daniel@japaninc.com) is senior contributing editor at J@pan Inc and a freelance technology writer in Tokyo.

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