RealTime IT News

Lord of the Rings

The JavaOne conference this week in San Francisco is, by any normal standard, a geekfest.

When you have thousands of programmers crowding into rooms to hear people present technical papers and visit almost identical, nondescript exhibit booths from dozens of software and hardware companies selling development products, that's a pretty accurate description.

In such a high-tech atmosphere, it would take something truly special to stand out as a hot technological breakthrough. But a little button that looks like an oversized watch battery has done just that, and may just change the Internet world in a number of subtle ways.

Every attendee here is given two tickets. One of them gets you a backpack full of traditional conference goodies such as the obligatory imprinted pen and shirt, and a handful of CD-ROMs loaded with software and demos of all kinds. The other leads you to wait on a somewhat longer line, and when you get to the front, you're handed a little plastic bag with a shiny, heavy object in it that looks like a class ring.

A class act, you say to yourself! I never bothered buying a high school or college ring, and here's a nicely made free one with the Java logo. Cool.

Then you read the little insert that comes with the ring and you realize it's not just a ring--the metal part with the logo is a hardware token. Oh, so it can be used to identify you. It's more than a token, however, it has memory. And more than just its 6 KB of nonvolatile RAM, it has a unique 64-bit serial number encoded in a waterproof, tamperproof million-transistor chip running a V2.0 Java Virtual Machine that can run multiple Java applets and do a 1024-bit RSA encryption in less than a second. To activate it, you touch your ring to a Blue Dot Receptor that can be plugged into any computer port.

This isn't a ring, it's science fiction.

It would be a good enough story as is, but it's also true. The Java Rings carry iButtons that were developed by Dallas Semiconductor Corporation in 1990. According to Michael Bolan (the firm's V.P. of Marketing, one of its founders, and the fellow who thought up the iButton in the first place), they've been quietly blanketing the globe with over 20 million of them.

"There's one on every Ryder truck and in every U.S. mailbox, one on every safe in every Taco Bell and KFC store," Bolan said. "One and a half million people in Istanbul use them for bus and ferry fares."