Sun sheds light on wireless focus

Contending that growth in the wireless market will complement and then overshadow the Internet, Sun Microsystems Inc. last month turned its focus to that area, detailing initiatives for wireless devices, applications and services.

Sun showcased a slew of product announcements, partnerships and investments in the wireless space, and pledged to keep working on open standards during an event at its new Santa Clara, Calif. campus, which augments its nearby Palo Alto headquarters.

“We really wanted to bring this all together,” said Ed Zander, president and chief operating officer at Sun, during a presentation. “I think this is going to foster a new wave of growth at Sun.”

As part of that new wave, Sun will extend its iForce program, first announced in June, to cover a broader range of wireless concerns, Sun said. The iForce wireless initiative will rely on the work of more than 50 software makers, ASPs (application service providers), content service providers and others to promote communication between different types of computer systems and to aid the development of wireless technologies through interoperable standards.

The initiative further includes partnerships with Razorfish Inc. and Zefer Corp. Sun said it will work with Internet consulting company Razorfish on developing wireless technology for mobile workers with a focus on users in the U.S. and Europe. Sun will then work with Zefer, another Internet-related consultancy, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to develop a co-marketed consumer pilot program for wireless commerce applications.

The vendor said it will create a new business unit, called the Wireless Excellence Center, dedicated to wireless technologies. Sun will open new testing centers in Stockholm and Menlo Park, Calif., where partners and customers can test wireless technologies with Sun hardware to make sure the applications are compatible. Sun will also invest US$100 million in venture funding for wireless companies to complement its work at the centers and through the initiative.

Sun officials also, as usual, promoted Java as the wireless protocol best suited for future wireless applications and said that iPlanet communications software was designed to help further the company’s Java goals. The new offering from iPlanet could help customers and partners expand calendar, messaging and e-mail applications on wireless devices including cell phones, two-way pagers and handhelds. Sun and Netscape Communications Corp. formed iPlanet last year as a joint venture.

Among future plans, Sun is working on a carrier-grade wireless offering for the third generation (3G) wireless spectrum. The aim is to make wireless services as reliable and available as land lines. Sun will also start its SunTone certification and branding program for applications, services and devices.

Analysts at the Sun event seemed impressed with what the vendor had to offer but said that wireless is nothing new for the company.

“If you look back at their design wins over the last two years, a lot of them have been focused on the wireless space,” said Daniel Kunstler, a senior analyst with J.P. Morgan Securities Inc. Sun’s Solaris servers run in about nine of the top 10 telecommunications companies and telecommunications service provider systems, he said.

While Sun’s arch-enemy Microsoft Corp. has also announced some wireless plans, Kunstler seemed less than impressed with Microsoft’s work in that area.

“Microsoft has been more of a follower than a leader in the wireless space,” he said, adding that Microsoft often muscles its way into new markets. “Whether that model will continue to work against someone like Sun remains to be seen.”

Like analysts at the event, Sun customers and partners seemed mostly impressed with what the vendor unveiled.

Peter MacKinnon, vice-president of wireless Internet at Nortel Networks Corp., said his company also supports the adoption of wireless open standards and expects to have a relationship with Sun for some time to come.

“We have the same vision in terms of the market evolving to Java,” he said. “The market is just now staring to see the powers of open standards.”

MacKinnon added that over time the two companies expect to make a number of announcements together.