Where's The Magic, Jini?

Three years ago, Sun Microsystems was touting its Jini technology as the sure path to ubiquitous computing. What happened to it?
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It's been a while since Sun Microsystems launched its technology for creating software to make devices work together as a "community."

The kick-off for Jini was sufficient to put it at the heart of any discussion of the future of network software. It had its share of questionable concerns, but these were met with the assurance that time would provide solutions. Three years and counting, though, the question in the mind of developers today is: "Whatever happened to Jini?"

Rolled out by no less a figure than Sun co-founder (and famous futurist) Bill Joy, Jini was described in 1999 as follows: "Built on top of a Java software infrastructure, Jini technology enables all types of digital devices to work together in a community put together without extensive planning, installation, or human intervention. Each device provides services that other devices in the community may use. These devices provide their own user or programmatic interfaces, which ensures reliability and compatibility."

Changing Definitions

It was quite a vision of things to come. So with the benefit of hindsight, it seems fair to ask how it has panned out so far.

I talked first with Sun's spokesperson for the technology, who acknowledged that Jini has not lived up to the early hype but urged patience and perseverance on the part of developers.

"When Jini first came out, it was positioned as device-centric," said Franc Romano, Jini group marketing manager for Sun. "Now, we're trying for a more-balanced approach toward software services. This is the major change in positioning since Jini was launched."

Today, Sun uses slightly different language in its official description: "Jini technology is an open architecture that enables developers to create network-centric services, in hardware or software, that are highly adaptive to change. It can be used to build adaptive networks that are scalable, evolvable, and flexible as typically required in dynamic computing environments."

Romano told me his company sees the software world as being in a protocol-intensive period now, citing XML, SOAP, and UDDI as examples; but they see the next cycle as being "protocol-agnostic," offering an opportunity for Jini to move into session and directory spaces now held by the XML-related protocols.

"UDDI gives way to Jini to create a network of 'embedded things', allowing expansion into automobiles and the home," said Romano.

Right now, though, his group sees themselves as still in an "early adopter phase" in which they get Jini "into the hands" of developers. He estimated that as many as 80,000 developers currently work with Jini, building infrastructure, components, and services for networks, primarily in the telecom, financial, and health-care fields.

"We still have a long way to go before Jini is mainstream, however," Romano admitted.

To combat the pitfalls of over-anticipation -- hype -- the Jini group has adopted a market-driven approach, he said. "We're being very careful not to get out in front of our developers... to support whatever direction they're going."

With a pending upgrade to Jini 2 planned for next year, Sun may be able to buy some breathing room for the technology's eventual success. But will developers, notorious for their fierce pragmatism, exercise the patience and perseverance to wait for it to finally gain momentum?

Word on the Street

To gain some balanced perspective on where Jini is now and could be in the future, I asked around to see what insiders had to say about its status in the industry.

For starters, I spoke with a pair of developers coming at Jini from different angles. One using it for hardware, one for software.

Danh Le Ngoc is the co-founder of aJile Systems, maker of a direct-execution processor for embedded Java applications on devices. They recently partnered with PsiNaptic to bring Jini functionality to their aJ-100 offering.

He said his firm has received "strong interest from existing customers as well as new ones, who have waited for a Jini solution for Java-based mobile devices and Internet-based industrial gateways and sensors." But he identified a key impediment currently hindering Sun's approach for small-footprint products -- its reliance on Remote Method Invocation.

"RMI-based Jini is too big for small, deeply embedded devices," said Ngoc. "Fortunately, [PsiNaptic's] JMatos on aJile processors has resolved this technical issue."

Asked where he saw Jini going in the future, he was nevertheless very upbeat. "Jini-enabled devices powered by direct-execution processors will be pervasive in the next two years. They will be deployed broadly at home, factory, and enterprise."

Aidan Mark Humphreys is the system architect for Procoma GmbH, which markets a new Jini-based XML document-presentation tool called Chameleon, recently adopted by Germany's Commerzbank AG.


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