A lucky and fast-moving start-up may beat Sun Microsystems to the punch with a full-blown microprocessor specifically designed to run Sun's own Java language.
According to industry sources, the Sun Microelectronics (SME) division next month at the Microprocessor Forum is expected to lay out a schedule for its first so-called Java chip, a microprocessor designed specifically to run the Java language.
But Patriotic Scientific Corp., a San Diego chip maker, is wrapping up its port of Sun's JavaOS to Patriot's own Java processor the PSC1000. The JavaOS includes compatibility software, the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) for compability and basic operating system features such as booting, thread management and handling interruptions.
"We expect the JavaOS port to be completed by shortly and the chip will be available in large quantities this year," said Phil Morettini, Patriot's vice president of sales and marketing. Before the end of this year, Patriot will demonstrate a network computer reference design to show off what its chip can do in a computer system.
If the Java chips can deliver enough speed, and do it cheaply, they could fuel the spread of Java into a new class of applications and devices.
These could include everything from personal digital assistants (PDA), copy machines and fax machines to cell phones and Java network computers, all of which would have in common a connection to the Internet.
There is nothing magical about the Java chip and JavaOS combination: The chip provides applets and applications with a performance boost, while the JavaOS handles the low-level functions needed to actually run an application. In fact, Patriot is evaluating several real-time operating systems as alternatives to the JavaOS.
Sun officials declined to confirm their schedule, which apparently call for the chip designs to be ready for chip manufacturers by year-end, with samples of finished chips available to systems designers in late second quarter or early third quarter of 1998.
These chips will be based on SME's picoJava technology. When a programmer writes a Java application, it is translated into a form called Java byte codes. To execute, the byte codes are run through an interpreter or compiler to create instructions the underlying general-purpose CPU can understand. SME's picoJava is a way to run the Java byte codes directly in the Java CPU instead of in the software, which should speed operations. The chip technology has been licensed to about a half-dozen companies.
SME will market and sell its own line of chips, called microJava, based on the picoJava foundation. Independent semiconductor companies will build the chips for SME. The microJava chips will use Sun's JavaOS. Sometime in late 1998 or 1999, SME will introduce a high-end chip, called ultraJava, which will use a different, more advanced technology than picoJava.
IBM also is in the game with a hybrid strategy. Bill O'Leary, a spokesman for IBM's Microelectronics Division, said the company already is shipping PowerPC chips with JVM capabilities. The chips are used in IBM's Network Computer Division. He also said the division is at work on implanting a Java accelerator into its chips and should see results early next year.
One picoJava licensee, Rockwell Avionics and Communications, last week said it had produced the first working Java chip. However, Rockwell announced no shipping date or other details and is exploring the chip's use only in advanced avionics applications.
Patriot is using a technology it acquired about two years ago, including a chip design that, fortuitously, meshes extremely well with the Java language design, the company claimed. "We can sell the product for under US$10 in high volumes," Morettini said. "We expect to have a performance-leading Java chip. You sure can't buy an Intel Pentium chip for under $10."
It is unclear whether the Java chips will be adopted by systems manufacturers, even for the Java-based network computers. Today, most network computer vendors are using general-purpose pro- cessors, such as the StrongARM from Digital Equipment Corp., or in some cases Intel Pentium chips. "We're tracking the Java chip, but the issue is what is its performance really compared with a general-purpose RISC CPU?" said James Fulton, director of product marketing for Network Computing Devices Inc., a Mountain View, California, network computer vendor. "And will there be applications that need this specialized hardware?"
Despite the different chip architectures and the different operating systems running on them, the vendors at least do not foresee serious problems with Java's write-once, run-anywhere promise.
That is because the implementations of the JVM are much more mature now; Sun has incorporated a vast number of new testing features into the JVM, said Harlan McGhan, technical marketing manager for SME.