A development project disclosed by Sun Microsystems last month, called Jini, comes with three wishes, but unlike those of the genies of legend, Sun's wishes are not guaranteed.
The first wish was granted the day Sun publicised it was tying several of its Java development projects into a new architecture called Jini: the company's stock price shot up from just over $US46 that Wednesday morning to close out the next day near $50.
Securities firm Merrill Lynch, in a report the following week, explained why, saying that Jini "should further Java's adoption" which is finding its way into ever more large companies' information networks. Merrill maintained its long-term "buy" recommendation on Sun stock.
Though Sun, predominantly a seller of high-end workstations and servers, currently garners little revenue directly from Java, the programming language has helped drive the company's share price to record levels in recent years.
Sun is being rewarded today for the promise that Java in future will help grow the overall market for computers and, in turn, demand for Sun's hardware, according to the Merrill report.
Stock price magic aside, and more just an interesting project from Sun's labs, the Jini development draws on years of research into distributed systems, which aspire to blend traditional networks and computers into one single system. Similar work is also under way at Microsoft under the code name Millennium, while other vendors including Lucent Technologies and IBM are also trying to make distributed systems a commercial reality.
"Jini is a beautiful integration of a lot of ideas from a lot of people and that's the way you progress in this field," said David Farber, Moore professor of telecommunications at the University of Pennsylvania and an early pioneer of distributed systems. "In the short term, I think we'll see the Jini activity is correct - you want to go down a path of distributed computing and it will push that further along."
The long-term future for Sun's development project, however, is still open to question. Could Jini grant Sun's remaining two wishes - redefine the model for computing that has held for the past 20 years as well as give birth to a new world of electronic markets?
"Someone has to make the bet," Farber said. "When you bet, sometimes you win and some times you lose . . . You need people who will go out and do it. I hope Sun has that courage to do it."
The key attribute of Jini, according to Sun, is that the software will make it easier for developers to build distributed systems. In the Jini worldview, anything connected to a network - be it hard drive, person, or software - is represented by a software object and Jini provides a way to label those objects.
The combination of several Java-related technologies enables the objects - which contain both data and code - to move across a network from place to place and employ each other to perform tasks. An object representing a camera, for instance, can find and then output its images to a printer. With code and data describing a device able to move freely over the network, Jini devices can use, and be used by, any other device on the network in a fluid way, Sun officials said.
Singles bar model
Objects in the Jini system do not have to be centrally managed and, instead, are matched by a sort of electronic bulletin board that lists the objects' attributes, according to the company. Sun's chief scientist, John Gage, likes to call Jini "the singles bar" model of computing since the process mimics people looking for partners in the real world.
Sun believes Jini could be used as a foundation for connecting large numbers of machines into distributed systems that are self-monitoring and able to move and replicate data automatically. If Jini achieves its second wish of redefining the computer, users of any device from a smart card upwards could be freed from concerns about the location of data and where computations are performed. The operating system as we know it today could quietly retire. Sun co-founder and chief Jini architect Bill Joy admits this distributed systems dream will take "a quantum leap in thinking".
But wait, there's more. If Jini enables objects to communicate in a similar manner as we do in the real world, why not use it to migrate real-world transactions and interactions into software on the network? The long-term future for Jini could be as a building block for networked markets and software "mirror worlds" of the one we know today, some observers said.
This third and final wish sounds like it's come straight from ancient tales of magic lamps and flying carpets, but draws on the research of David Gelernter, a Yale University computer scientist who pioneered the concept behind JavaSpaces, one key piece of the Jini project, Sun officials said.
"Like a child-sized play village modelled precisely on a real town and tracking reality's every move, the Mirror World supplies a software object to make and track every real one," Gelernter wrote in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds. "Each visitor will zoom in and around and roam through the model as he chooses at whatever pace and level of detail he likes. On departing he will leave a bevy of software alter egos behind to keep tabs on whatever interests him."
Now that Jini is public, Joy is reportedly investigating such alter ego software, delving into the social and technical aspects of software agents. Joy is also co-chair of a committee appointed by Bill Clinton that in a soon-to-be-released report will recommend federal funding of IT research projects that are "based on assumptions not true today", according to a draft copy of the report. The committee specifically cites Mirror Worlds as an example area of research.
But behind such blue-sky visions lies a fledgling technology that many within Sun still don't understand. Developed quietly in Aspen, Colorado, and the Boston suburb of Chelmsford, Jini is the brainchild of Joy and a cadre of Sun insiders not involved in the day-to-day grind of the company's Silicon Valley headquarters. As a result, when Jini surfaced last month, a host of Sun executives were at a loss as to exactly what the technology is and how to explain it.
Is Jini an R&D project or a product? Is the core Jini code 24KB or 48KB in size? How much of Jini's source code will be released? Is that source code finished? These questions and others were flying around Sun even as Jini was being let out of its bottle, officials said.