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Sun: Plenty of Life Left In Java ME

In a recent update to its Java roadmap, Sun Microsystems pretty much omitted any discussion about Java Micro Edition (ME), which would seem to be a bad sign for the embedded language.

However, the company insists there is plenty of life in technology and it won't be abandoned any time soon. James Gosling today updated his blog to state rather unequivocally that Java ME is not going anywhere (something he probably should have said at the roadmap press event last week).

"If Java ME could speak, it would quote Mark Twain and state the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated," Laurie Tolson, vice president of the client software group at Sun told InternetNews.com "As we look further out, the core set of ME APIs will be used in devices that can use them. But there will be a mix of others as well."

The others would be JavaFX and JavaFX Script, which garnered the bulk of the attention in Gosling's speech. Tolson attributed the lack of ME discussion to Gosling looking far ahead of any product plans. "James's job is to be the big picture guy. He's looking ten years down the road," she said.

For now, Sun plans for JavaFX Script apps to support both SE and ME platforms, and apps can be written for SE without modification or dumbing down required to accommodate the more modest capabilities of an ME device. "The intent is that JavaFX apps will be displayed in a manner appropriate for the device," said Jean Elliot, senior director of marketing at Sun.

If ME has suffered for anything, it's been all of the distractions consuming Sun. For starters, for the past year Sun has been in the process of releasing Java as open source, and a lot of pieces that were licensed from third parties had to be replaced because the license owners would not allow them to be released.

Then there was the release of SE 6 earlier this year, a major revision, and in April 2007, Sun acquired the assets of SavaJe, a Java-based operating system for advanced mobile phones. So in the past year, Sun has had to legally vet Java, upgrade it, replace pieces of it and get its arms around an acquisition.

Still, Sun can't afford to slow down at all in this space, said Clay Ryder, president and chief consultant of The Sageza Group. "In the world of mobile phone and gadgets, they make the upgrade cycle for PCs look like dinosaurs by comparison," he said. "Every year you get a new phone, every year you get a new gadget and the growth of functionality is incredible. ME may not be useless but it can be left behind real easily."

Sun said ME is not being neglected or phased out. Tolson and Elliot said the primary platform for Java ME is the handset market, what they called the "feature phone" market. These are the phones most people have; below smartphones in terms of capabilities and technology with a fair amount of built-in features.

Those phones are not capable of running Java SE yet, and won't be for a while, so Sun simply can't afford to shoehorn SE into those phones yet, said Tolson. "In the long run, that might be the answer. But in the next three to eight years there will be a slew of phones, up to two billion, that will not be at the smartphone level," she said.

The smartphone is going to grow but the feature phone is not going to fall off, and that's where ME belongs. A lot of it has to do with device capacity. Smartphones have the extra memory and storage that SE would need.

If nothing else, Sun would be walking away from a lot of work for the mobile market if it phased out ME. It has a pair of Java Specification Requests (JSRs) to develop a new Mobile Services Architecture (MSA). JSR 248, based on the Connected Limited Device Configuration (CLDC), is aimed at smaller devices and is almost finalized.

JSR 249 is more high-end, based the Connected Device Configuration (CDC), and is meant for more powerful devices on the market, like smartphones and PDAs. It is still going through the approval process.

Ryder said Sun runs the risk of falling behind in the mobile space if it doesn't keep up a fast pace. "Right now, ME is an established technology and I don't think it's suddenly being shunned, but I just don't think it's representing the leading edge any more," he said.

"They have to keep it competitive if not leading, because they run the risk of not being in the next set of handsets. And everyone knows you can't afford to have a gap between generations of handsets because you don't want to appear to lose momentum," Ryder added.