IBM has developed a technology called NetDiver - an embedded Java browser which runs on small Internet devices - which it plans to announce in the US several months from now.
Already being tested in Japan, the "very tiny" Web browser will run on handheld computers and other Internet devices based on any platform, as long as the operating system possesses a Java virtual machine, says Hideshi Yoshinaga, manager of embedded middleware software development at IBM Japan.
Built entirely in Java, NetDiver has most of the functionality of a regular Web browser, such as the ability to view Java applets and HTML 3.2, Yoshinaga says. The NetDiver browser itself takes up 700Kbof memory, but a device needs 4Mb of RAM to enable the browser to perform caching properly. The ability to view images comes from the integration of IBM's Micro Presentation Manager, an embedded version of OS/2's graphical user interface. Since it was developed in Japan, the browser supports double-byte character sets.
IBM has built a prototype handheld computer, based on an Intel processor and running embedded OS/2 and NetDiver, which is being tested in Japan. While no hardware vendors have licensed NetDiver yet, several have approached IBM about the technology, Yoshinaga says, although he would not identify which companies have done so.
One analyst says that if IBM makes the embedded OS fast and cheap, it may prove to be a contender in the market.
"They probably have a chance against Windows CE," says Dan Kusnetzky, director of the Unix and client/server environment program for International Data Corp. "Right now, implementations of Windows CE are rather large and slow." Having a Java virtual machine will free OS/2 to be a robust Internet operating system, he adds, and the quality of the virtual machine will matter more than the underlying operating system.
IBM already has one embedded browser on the market - the Micro Web Browser - but the product runs only on the embedded version of DOS and does not support Java.
IBM - which observers see has having virtually given up on pitting OS/2 against Windows in the desktop PC market - is hoping the embedded market will be a new home for the operating system, the officials agreed. Future ideas for where this small footprint version of OS/2 could be used include everything from set-top boxes and network computers to medical instruments and automotive controllers.
NetDiver is the first Internet application for embedded OS/2 and IBM realizes that an embedded operating system is no use unless developers create applications for it. However, IBM is confident developers will come forward once they see how stable and powerful the embedded version of OS/2 is, says Louis Davis, advisory programmer in the embedded systems development group at IBM's Austin labs.
In the markets for handheld computers, NCs and set-top boxes, IBM will go up against tough competition from Microsoft and its Windows CE operating system; Netscape Corp.'s Navio spin-off which is creating software for all kinds of Internet devices; and Sun Microsystems Inc., which has plans to release not only the small-footprint JavaOS but a Java chip specifically tailored to run the operating system.
However, IBM isn't planning to just target Internet devices with its embedded OS/2 and existing embedded DOS operating systems. In a few years time, OS/2 may be found running on medical instruments, handheld terminals for the manufacturing and service industries, automotive controllers, cellular and fixed telephones and automatic teller machines, Davis says. Right now, about 90% of ATMs are running partial versions of embedded OS/2, he says.
Another specific goal of the embedded operating system team is to get the recycled PC industry interested in embedded OS/2 and NetDiver so that 386 and older machines can be revamped for the Internet. Using even the embedded DOS operating system running the Micro Web Browser would be better than throwing the systems away, Davis says.
Possible beneficiaries of such a scheme would be developing nations where people cannot afford to buy PCs (or even NCs) and schools, officials say.
However, if in the future Java should prove too tough a competitor to embedded OS/2, IBM may spend more time developing its own version of the JavaOS and Java chip, Davis says.
"We won't ever completely abandon OS/2," he says. However, if IBM's customers ask for more Java, that is where the company will put its energy, Davis says. Even DOS will never go away completely, he adds.
"We still have a lot of interest in DOS," especially the embedded version running in calculators, brake controllers and telephones, Davis says.