Microsoft, Sun offer fertile ground for handheld apps

Both Microsoft Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc. upped the ante in the red-hot mobile applications development field last week week. Microsoft launched the Windows XP Embedded OS at its developers forum in Las Vegas, while Sun touted the peer-to-peer capabilities of its Project Jxta running on Sun’s J2ME (Java 2, Micro Edition) OS at the JavaOne developer conference in Japan.

The news follows Helsinki, Finland-based Nokia Corp.’s recent open mobile architecture initiative, designed to encourage common application development from mobile product vendors.

For Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft, the release of the Windows XP Embedded OS means developers can bring to wireless products, PDAs (personal digital assistants), and other small devices many of the features of the full Windows XP operating system.

Microsoft has gained traction in the embedded OS market over the last several years with its Windows CE and Pocket PC OSes, taking market share from competitors Palm and Sun Microsystems in the process. XP Embedded puts another round in the chamber for Microsoft, but officials admit having four embedded OSes can be confusing.

Of Windows CE 3.0, PocketPC, Windows XP Embedded, and Windows.Net Embedded Server, Keith White, a director with the embedded and appliance platforms group at Microsoft, said, “there is a lot of crossover there, but we target key devices for each OS.”

“XP Embedded is targeted at rich-client devices, such as kiosks, ATMs, and retail point-of-sale systems,” White said. “The forthcoming Windows CE.Net, which will be finished before year’s end, is optimized for small-footprint devices, such as PDAs, smart phones, and Web-pad devices. When it ships in the second half of next year, Windows.Net Embedded Server likely will find a home in focus-function devices, such as caching appliances, server appliances, and Web blades.” For its part, PocketPC is tuned for hardware specific devices.

“The bet is that applications and services will differentiate the devices,” White said. System manufacturers take the underlying OS from Microsoft and build on top of that to offer distinct product, White added.

Sun is betting that its Jxta P2P technology will make its J2ME OS the choice for application developers by enabling all sorts of devices to share information.

At its developers conference in Japan this week, Sun demonstrated Jxta running on the smallest wireless devices that run the J2ME platform.

Sun’s overall goal with Project Jxta is to create a generalized P2P platform that can span anything from small devices up to servers. Jxta is not limited to PCs, but works across different networks and different kinds of devices and different languages. The goal is an open platform that can span multiple devices, so the whole project is done as a public open-source project.

“When we took it public in April, the early implementations were targeted at desktop devices and larger. Part of the vision was to go to smaller devices,” explained Juan Carlos Soto, group marketing manager for Project Jxta at Sun.

The attraction of an open Java development platform combined with P2P technology makes Jxta and J2ME ideal to compete against rivals in the wireless and handheld market, Soto said.

“In our view, P2P is a natural extension [of wireless computing] because it empowers the device not to just be a thin, dumb client, but it can actually be a provider of resources back into the network, and work in a P2P style with anything from a super server to another wireless device,” he said.

What Sun hopes Jxta becomes is the standard way in which any device can interoperate with other devices in a P2P way, Soto said.

“When you get some commonality in how devices interact in a P2P environment, there will be a lot of innovation,” Soto said. “P2P just adds another dimension to the kinds of things you can build for wireless devices, like group collaboration, communications without central registration, file-sharing on the fly.”

In the domain of Web services, Microsoft believes XP Embedded will give it the upper hand in the wireless market because of XP Embedded’s roots in Microsoft’s .Net strategy, said Jim Allchin, group vice president of Microsoft’s platforms group.

“Because the embedded version [of XP] is actually a superset of Windows XP, it includes all of XP’s Web services technologies, such as Passport single sign-in and authentication, XML, and SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol],” said Allchin. “We’re going to work hard [at] using XML to bridge devices, PCs, servers, and services together.”

Specifically, a number of the devices that run XP Embedded will function as end-points from which users can consume Web services, Allchin said.

Sun is also looking at Jxta as an alternative way to distribute Web services through P2P nodes.

As the OS makers court application developers to add functionality atop their individual operating systems, wireless handheld and PDA vendors like Nokia, Compaq, and Hewlett-Packard all stand to gain, as richer embedded OSes mean more popular products for consumers.