Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy has painted a rosy, futuristic picture of the convergence of consumer electronics and networked computing, one in which Sun's Java programming language provides the enabling technology.
From smart cards to smart automobiles and from set-top boxes to jewelry that provides access to buildings, McNealy wowed the Consumer Electronics Show audience during his keynote address with a barrage of demonstrations of new and existing Java-based products. The demonstrations were couched in a humorous skit in which McNealy's "son," a precocious but unmotivated tech wiz, opens dad's eyes to the wonders of Java and networked consumer appliances.
Java's "write once, run anywhere" capabilities make it the ideal application development environment to drive a new generation of networked consumer electronics products, McNealy said. True to form, he lambasted the Windows PC platform as one that is too bulky and too complex to operate, lacking the ease of use required by the mass consumer market.
McNealy was joined on stage by Michael Beindorff, vice president and product manager for Visa International, who announced that Visa will help develop and then deliver in the US in mid-1998 smart cards based on the Java Card API (application programming interface) and including a microprocessor core optimised to run Java.
And in the biggest coup for Sun in the consumer electronics arena, McNealy was joined in a video link by John Malone, chairman and CEO of cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. Malone informed the crowd of the deal announced earlier today in which TCI will include PersonalJava in millions of set-top boxes that it and its affiliates will distribute to households in early 1999. The boxes will allow consumers to access services like home shopping, home banking and the Internet via their televisions, he said.
"PersonalJava gives us a broad development environment in which people can develop a wealth of applications that will run without concern for the microprocessor or the operating system," Malone said.
"And you thought we were going to get aced by Microsoft," McNealy bragged, reacting to eleventh-hour reports that Sun and Microsoft had been battling to win the TCI endorsement.
The keynote was in many ways a testimony to the growing importance of consumer electronics to the computing industry, as devices like cellular phones, pocket computers and televisions become the vehicles consumers use to access services like electronic mail, home banking, home shopping, and surfing the Internet.
"It's kind of weird for me to be here," McNealy said at the outset of his address. "I don't usually go to Comdex, and this is my first year at CES. Why us? I'm wondering, too." The answer, he said: Java, and in particular PersonalJava, Sun's software platform created specifically for network-connectable consumer devices, the reference implementation for which was announced here this week.
The bulk of his keynote was given over to demonstrations of Java's capabilities. He showed off the Nokia 9000 "Web phone" which runs the Java Virtual Machine, connects to the Internet via a network port, and includes a full keyboard. He also displayed set-top box software jointly developed with OpenTV, which enables users to connect to the Internet via their television sets to find out about local news, weather and entertainment, as well as order products being advertised on television commercials, he said.
He also demonstrated Audible, an online library database that lets users search for and purchase books, magazines and other products; a Java-powered cash register; and showed a video of the Networked Car, a futuristic vehicle which incorporates Java in numerous networked applications.
He sported a ring built using an embedded Java chip and the Java Smart Card API, which he said could be worn by students as a means of identification to allow them to purchase meals without cash, and to gain access to campus buildings, for example.
But most of his enthusiasm was saved for Sun's deal with TCI, and its potential to generate a wealth of applications for set-top boxes by allowing developers to write software without being tied to a single operating system. The deal is viewed as an important victory for Sun in its battle with archrival Microsoft, which has also announced that its Windows operating system will be included in some TCI set-top boxes.
"This is huge, this is big," McNealy said in a question and answer period after the keynote. "Our ultimate challenge is to stop people writing in platform-specific code and get them writing to the Java API and to platform-independent code. We'll get that done by proliferating sites and machines that run Java," he said.
As well as providing PersonalJava as the underlying software layer for TCI, Sun would ideally like to provide the "full stack of software" for the set-top boxes, said Marge Breya, Sun's director of marketing. "We'd like to see Chorus, the small-footprint operating system we bought recently, running on top of PersonalJava, and then put OpenTV on top of Chorus," she said.
McNealy urged consumer electronics manufacturers to buy into his Java vision. "The opportunity for you is to put the steaming coffee cup Java logo on your product; that's our goal," he said.