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'Microsoft Ought to Be Scared to Death'

When's the last time you booted up your telephone? Added a disk drive to your car stereo? Installed a new program on your pager? Dumb questions, right? Those devices don't require the rigmarole that personal-computer owners contend with regularly. They just work.

That simplicity is what Bill Joy, Sun Microsystems Inc.'s chief technology officer, wants to bring to computers and the Net. When he unveils new Sun software called Jini (pronounced ''genie'') on Jan. 25, Joy aims to usher in a new era in which people can tap into a computer network's vast services as simply as they call Mom on the phone. PC technology is way too complex, says Joy: ''We've been fishing around for a system that puts itself together.''

How might Jini work? It's a set of software tools that uses Sun's Java to give each device its own smarts. Once plugged into a network, these devices each have an address, and they broadcast what sort of capabilities they can provide. A disk drive, for instance, might let other devices know it has 10 megabytes of storage available for use. In that case, you could store a video clip from the Net in that space.

Suddenly, computing becomes a service, like a dial tone, available from almost anywhere. Walk into a customer's conference room and plug your Jini-outfitted PalmPilot into the network jack. Presto! You've got a virtual office. You could send a memo to a company printer or borrow a company server computer to speed up a spreadsheet calculation.

Potentially, this creates a huge new opportunity for Sun. Jini networks would require boatloads of Sun's servers to run on. Sun even hopes Jini could block Microsoft Corp.'s attempts to move PC technology into consumer devices. ''This is the hottest idea in a long time,'' says Marc Hansen, vice-president for architecture for Sun customer J. Crew Group Inc., which sees Jini as a way to get computers to talk to one another more easily. ''Microsoft ought to be scared to death.''

The software giant already is firing back. On Jan. 7, it introduced a related set of technologies at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas but has not yet set a delivery date. Microsoft says its Universal Plug and Play technology uses more industry standards and avoids Jini's potentially cumbersome approach of sending software over networks. Says Charles Fitzgerald, a Microsoft group product manager: ''In the real world, with all this complexity, this isn't going to be easy.''

''A TOY.'' That's not the only obstacle. Sun's plan assumes every device has the necessary Java software or ready access to it. But current Java-powered devices require more memory than most consumer devices can afford. Moreover, the early release of Jini has limits on how many devices can work on a network, says Gartner Group Inc. analyst David Smith. While Jini is promising, he says, ''at this point in time, it's a toy.'' Finally, Jini is effective only if it's ubiquitous in a vast range of devices or they won't be able to communicate.

To answer that concern, Sun is expected on Jan. 25 to add a raft of new Jini licensees to the 30 computer, software, and consumer-electronics companies supporting Jini so far. Quantum Corp., for example, plans to offer Jini disk drives later this year. Says Quantum chief architect Paul Borrill: ''There is a potential for Jini to be at least as big as Java.'' Joy dreams of Jini.

By Robert D. HOf in Cupertino, Calif.


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Updated Jan. 7, 1999 by bwwebmaster
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