SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Having conquered the Internet, Java now wants to get into your kitchen.

Published April 1, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

he may not be a household name like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but James Gosling may loom as large when the history of the "information revolution" is written. Gosling is the lead engineer and key architect of Java, the programming technology developed at Sun Microsystems that is being used for all sorts of World Wide Web applications, from animation and games to chat and database interfaces. Nor is Java merely an application tool for computers: In the near future, Java technology, say its boosters, will be used in everything from the kitchen counter to the gas pump.

Some of the latest Java developments will be on display at the second annual JavaOne conference, which begins today in San Francisco. Conference organizers say there will be 300 exhibitors showing off Java-based applications, and Sun is expected to make new Java platform and product announcements. Gosling, a vice president and fellow at Sun Microsystems, is a keynote speaker.

Salon spoke briefly with Gosling on the eve of the conference.

Java started out as a language to build "applets" -- small programs that created animation and a few navigation aids -- and now there are more and more higher-end applications, with servers and so forth. Where is Java going next?

The most interesting stuff that's happening now is with smaller machines and devices.

Such as?

PDAs (personal digital assistants), Web telephones, Web TV browsers.

We're also hearing of devices in the prototype stage that will allow people to program domestic appliances like their coffee pots through a remote hand-held device.

There are a number of people working on those very things, and that's where I think Java has the most potential.

Can you be more specific about the prototypes?

I can't discuss those right now.

(Salon also contacted Jon Kannegard, vice president of software products at JavaSoft, who was a little more forthcoming. According to Kannegard, Java devices under development include wristwatches with radio links -- a small LCD that communicates with home -- "so at 4 p.m., you get a message that says: 'pick up a loaf of bread'"; and Smart Cards with a microprocessor running Java that holds a person's medical records, including medications and dosages.

(Allan Baratz, the president of JavaSoft, told Salon that Sun was working with Gem Plus and Schlumberger to develop Smart Cards linked to servers. He said that almost all Smart Cards -- an estimated 1 billion worldwide -- are being manufactured by Java licensees. Baratz also said that Java was getting involved in cell-phone technology with such companies as Nokia, Alcatel and Nortel. "It's a joke around here," said Kannegard. "Java was originally designed for light switches, and there are corporations building enterprise applications using millions of lines of Java code.")

What about a full Java operating system?

You have to make the distinction between an OS as underlying software that a user never sees and an OS as a user interface. Java clearly specifies the user interface. The software underneath can be anything -- Mac, PC, VAX VMS, whatever suits the needs of the particular user and application. For instance, we have a very small Java OS we use for talking to silicon (programming microchips). Applications that demand huge facilities -- running certain kinds of large projects for instance -- still require a more complicated operating system, like Solaris or MDS.

But the whole point of Java was "platform independence." That is, the language itself doesn't care what sort of OS is underneath. That's what makes it so useful for the Web. You can be using any OS in any location, and still use a Java applet.

What about the Web? Where is it going?

It's on track to becoming the next major mass-media instrument. There are a number of hurdles, however. For one thing, we don't really have the infrastructure in place to withstand what people want to do with it. And there are the social and political considerations -- freedom of speech, censorship, those issues all have to be ironed out.

What will you be talking about at your keynote speech at the JavaOne conference?

I'll be showing some new toys.

Such as?

If I tell you, then that would be telling, wouldn't it?

By Erica Rex

Erica Rex, a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Fiction, also writes on technology.


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