Sun puts Java into gear for cars

The JavaOne crowd envisions a future with downloadable horn tunes as Sun's Jonathan Schwartz outlines a push to put Java in autos.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor
SAN FRANCISCO--Having secured a niche for Java in cell phones, Sun is setting its sights and server ambitions on a new client device: cars.

Sun's success in the server market hasn't helped it elbow Microsoft aside in personal computers. Microsoft's Windows, and not Sun's Java, is used as the programming foundation of choice in desktops and notebooks. But PCs aren't the only "client" device that people use to tap into network services.

"Clients are back," Jonathan Schwartz, Sun's chief operating officer, told JavaOne attendees here during a keynote speech on Monday. "They're touch points between a university and hospital and patients, between drivers and automobile companies, between subscribers and handsets. The evolution of that market (is) beginning to bubble back."

Java has become the leading platform for games on cell phones, and Sun is looking to repeat that success in in-car computers.

Schwartz told the JavaOne crowd that in a meeting with an automobile company he had been discussing the $3.5 billion market for ring-tone downloads for cell phones when a younger executive suggested, "We could make downloadable horn tones to an automobile." After the initial burst of laughter at the meeting died down, Schwartz commented: "Do you know a 17-year-old who would pay $5 for a new horn tone on his dashboard? I do."

At the conference, Sun and executives from Siemens VDO Automotive showed off a new BMW car equipped with a Java-powered in-dash computer that controlled navigation, air conditioning, entertainment and other functions. The technology will be used in models in BMW's 100, 300, 500 and 600 series, and likely in future 700-series cars as well, said Roland Bush, the chief executive of the infotainment unit of Siemens VDO Automotive.

Redmonk analyst James Governor sees Java as a good technology to spread into new client devices. "Java has shown itself very amenable to becoming applicable to niches," he said.

Java is software that lets a single program--written in the Java programming language--run on several computers. There are classes of Java for devices such as cell phones, servers, desktop computers and digital ID cards.

Schwartz said at the show that Wall Street and industry analysts had missed the potential of cell phones for games and other services beyond voice calls. To date, 350 million Java-powered handsets have been shipped, and games for those phones add up to $3 billion market, he said. "The gaming market is purely and simply about Java," Schwartz added.

Sun hopes to make money off Java by spurring new network services that are underpinned by the powerful servers, storage systems, software and services the company sells, Schwartz said. The prime market: the same mobile communications service providers that benefited from Java in cell phones.

"There's an interesting phenomenon with those carriers. What we noticed is, the infrastructure built for that handset isn't limited to serving handsets. They could serve a set-top box. They could serve an automobile. They could serve a parking meter," Schwartz said.

Vodafone, one of the largest mobile service operators, has a group looking into the automotive computer market, also often known as "telematics, said Juan Dewar, a senior director of product marketing in Sun's Consumer and Mobile Systems Group. Vodafone is one of the largest buyers of Sun's back-end server gear, Dewar said.

Sun has taken to emulating cell phone companies, which often give free or inexpensive hardware--handsets--to customers who commit to a subscription for products or services. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based company began offering this week an Opteron workstation with Solaris and developer tools for $1,495 a year, with a three-year commitment. In addition, the only way to get Sun's Java Studio Creator programming tools is to sign up for a $99-per-year Sun developer community subscription.

Schwartz believes even the automobile industry could follow suit. One automaker's chief financial officer told Schwartz his company could give a car away for free, if it could charge a customer $220 per month for a subscription.

That's not too far from some current service fees, said John Loiacono, Sun's executive vice president for software. General Motors' OnStar, which provides roadside assistance, navigation help and other networked services to drivers, costs $20 to $80 per month, he said. He also noted that many people pay $80 or $90 per month for television services.

Project Looking Glass
Separately on Monday, Sun announced that its three-dimensional interface, called Project Looking Glass, has become an open-source project, a move designed to spur more outside involvement and to spruce up the often-plain user interface of Java devices. Accompanying the move was the release of underlying shared software, Java 3D, a collection of routines that programmers can use for tasks such as creating objects or applying lighting effects.

It's not yet clear which licenses Sun will choose to govern the Looking Glass and Java 3D software, Loiacono said. The GNOME user interface used by many Linux machines and by Sun itself is covered by the General Public License (GPL), but Looking Glass runs at a higher level and therefore can use a different license, he said.

Ultimately, for better performance, Looking Glass could be integrated with GNOME, a move that would require a version released under the GPL, Loiacono said.

Although Java, with its formalized programming approach, faces challenges from the free-form philosophy behind open-source programming, the number of Java programmers increased from 3 million last year to 4.2 million this year, Sun said. In addition, attendance at the four-day, programmer-heavy JavaOne show is likely to be up on last year's total of 15,000, Sun said.

Sun has more plans afoot for open-source software. "We're committed to open source and Solaris, and we're on a flight path to go do that now," Schwartz said. Rob Gingell, the Sun executive who deals with Java Community Process, a multicompany effort that governs Java's future, is looking at how Sun could continue to evolve the group toward a more open-source direction.

But Java programs must be able run on different devices, and Sun will ensure that Java doesn't lose its assurance of compatibility when it becomes open-source software, Schwartz said. Open-source licenses, which permit programmers to move projects in different directions, can pose problems in compatibility that ultimately harm customers, he said.

"If you write to Red Hat Enterprise (Linux), it's not going to run on SuSE Linux. That presents Red Hat with an opportunity to increasing pricing," Schwartz said. Customers like compatibility because they can substitute one supplier's technology with that of another and therefore get lower prices, he noted.

"What CIOs want is competition. They love being able to bring vendors in and let them beat the snot out of each other," Schwartz said.

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