US Special Report: Intel and IBM do Java

IBM is expected to announce this week it's intention to build an Intel-based Lean Client running the JavaOS for Business.

The Lean Client will be based on Intel reference specification and will support the Network Computer reference platform backed by IBM, Sun and Oracle. IBM last month became a codeveloper of the JavaOS for Business along with Sun and will tune the JavaOS for Intel processors, said sources close to the company. IBM would not comment.

IBM's announcement is a coup for Intel since IBM's Network Stations use PowerPC chips. It is unclear which Intel chip or chips IBM will use, although in an interview last week, Intel Vice President Will Swope said Java is too demanding for low-end processors. "[The thin client] market today is terminal replacement, but we are deeply engaged in our next-generation Lean Client. We'll start with a Pentium 166, although I wouldn't be surprised to see it drift up to high-performance processors, assuming there is a meaningful market for high-performance Java applications," said Swope. Intel had no comment on the announcement.

Meanwhile, Sun will ship a new version of its JavaStation later this year and is also looking for ways to partner with IBM to drive JavaStations into the market. Sun last week met with IBM to see how the companies could expand their alliance begun around the JavaOS for Business. IBM agreed to jointly develop, market, distribute and license that operating system last month, although many details are not yet worked out.

"Let's face it. Sun and IBM compete, but partnering gives us a much better chance to get Network Computers out into the market in large numbers. We're going to become very close," says Steve Tirado, director of Sun's Java Desktop Systems Group.

Late this year Sun plans to release a new version of the JavaStation that Tirado describes as "a lightweight desktop." Tirado said Sun has focused its JavaStations on fixed functions, such as call centers, as the Java software evolves. "The [new] JavaStations will have a full-function Webtop, with session management, authorisation, log-on, access services, and file and print. You'll be able to run lightweight components on the desktop," Tirado told resellers at Sun's Reseller Summit earlier this month, in the US. "We already have improvements in the HotJava browser, and in the second half we'll accelerate with new drivers, the Webtop framework, the Java Developers Kit 1.2, the new JavaStation and improvements in the Netra [management] software."

At the summit, Tirado refused to discuss details of the new JavaStation, but said the first step for Sun and IBM would be to "evangelise" Sun's Webtop, which IBM, Oracle and Lotus have agreed to support. IBM, which had no comment on the proposed partnership, has been Sun's biggest Java proponent, although the companies have plenty of disagreements. IBM is still advising customers to hold off on upgrading to the JDK 1.2 to allow the Java platform to stabilise. The JDK 1.2 is due to ship sometime this summer.

Among other things, the JDK 1.2 will improve performance on JavaStations and other NCs by allowing them to download individual Java Beans. "As you move through an application, you'll be able to download Java Beans [components] as they are needed. You won't have to download everything at once," says Steve Mann, director of development for OpenJ, Corel's tool for assembling applications out of Java Beans. "Depending on the way you use a particular application, Bean X may never get downloaded, and that's neat because now you can use less-expensive hardware and not much memory. Java will speed across the wire."

Sun is feeling the competitive heat from Windows Terminals, which Microsoft is aggressively pushing and which some Sun resellers will soon sell. Windows Terminals are being manufactured by several OEMs, although Intel last month made an investment in NCDto manufacture Lean Clients based on Windows CE.

"Nobody's sure where Microsoft is taking this, but the trick for us is still to maintain Sun on the big iron and deploy to the desktop and control them economically. We run our company with Sun and SCO computers in the back room and Citrix/Hydra [Windows Terminals] on the desktop. We're Web-enabled, and we have a couple of readily available tools to get to legacy applications. The complexities involved are not for the faint-of-heart, though," says Bob Norton, vice president of Select, a US Sun reseller.