Java Watching and the Laptop of the Month

The anyone-but-Microsoft mentality is in full force this week as Sun Microsystems hosts its annual JavaOne conference in San Francisco. But Java, once the bastion of open interoperability, is now a relatively minor part of Sun's strategy for marketing itself as a Microsoft alternative. And despite obvious similarities between Sun's Java-based Web services plans and the Microsoft .NET platform, few can deny Microsoft's lead in moving the computer industry away from a PC-dependent business model and toward distributed Web services.

However, if you ask Sun CEO Scott McNealy and other Sun executives about Java's status, they'll say .NET is on the run, Sun's Java programming language dominates the industry, Java-based Web services and non-PC devices are paving the road to the future, and Sun's Liberty Alliance Web authentication scheme—still in the planning stages—is elbowing aside Microsoft's .NET Passport. McNealy paints a pretty picture—one that JavaOne attendees will likely accept without questions. Suddenly, Sun's decade-old "the network is the computer" tagline is looking prophetic.

Microsoft detractors often point to obvious arguments against the software giant: Rather than innovate solely to benefit its customers, Microsoft builds its future products to rely on and interoperate with its dominant Windows OS and Windows-based technologies. The company's Pocket PCs and upcoming Smart Phone 2002 devices work more like PCs than simple handheld devices, which might raise support costs and confuse customers. And Microsoft's predatory tactics are causing resistance in markets it doesn't already dominate. Wireless, cell phone, cable, and telecommunications companies are jealously guarding their turfs against the outside invader. Witness Microsoft's numerous ill-fated attempts at getting cable companies to roll out its software for interactive TV set-top boxes.

But this week's big Java news is wireless connectivity with non-PC devices such as cell phones, pagers, and other handheld devices, an area Microsoft is also targeting. Research in Motion (RIM) will roll out a Java-based software development kit (SDK) for its popular BlackBerry device. Various cell phone companies are building Internet connectivity into their devices, often using Java-based technology. And Nextel Communications will announce a server product that lets enterprises securely send and receive business data from cell phones in the field.

Finally, Sharp Electronics is now shipping a $300 Pocket PC alternative called the Zaurus SL-5500, which runs Linux and includes wireless capabilities. The Zaurus device features open-source versions of almost every Pocket PC feature imaginable and includes a slide-out keyboard, similar to keyboards BlackBerry devices use, which users operate with their thumbs. The Zaurus ships with Personal Java, a feature even certain Microsoft-based Smart Phone 2002 devices will include.

Next week, I'd like to discuss Microsoft's answers to the Java threat. But I'm curious: How many of you are rolling out Java solutions this year, and why are you doing so? Email me at [email protected]

Laptop of the Month: IBM ThinkPad A31
A few weeks ago, Intel announced that it was shipping a new version of the Pentium 4 CPU designed specifically for laptops. This announcement caught me off guard because I follow the mobile space pretty carefully, but as I read about the various new systems coming from companies such as Dell, Gateway, IBM, and Toshiba, I realized I needed to get my hands on one. And this month's Laptop of the Month—the IBM ThinkPad A31—is a prime example of this machine type, which finally obliterates the line between mobile and desktop computing.

The A31 packs a lot of power—a 1.6GHz Pentium 4-M processor, 256MB of RAM, a 15" 1400 x 1050 display, 3-D video capabilities, a 40GB hard disk, and integrated wireless capabilities. The A31's sleek, chiseled fascia is a huge improvement over the boxy A series I reviewed last year. The A31 sports a new row of application-launch buttons, a beautiful, color-coded, full-sized keyboard, and two Ultra Bay expansion bays (on the review unit, one bay had a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, and the other was empty, saving weight). The unit has an abundance of ports, as you'd expect on a desktop replacement; it lacks only a FireWire port.

But the big questions about this desktop-replacement unit concern heat dissipation and performance. In both regards, the A31 shines. In heavy use, the A31 never felt overheated, as many Pentium III-based units do. And the performance is stunning—equal to my new Pentium 4 desktop's performance in every way. I didn't run benchmarks, but Quake III screams on this device—every bit as fast as my NVIDIA-powered desktop (the IBM uses a 32MB ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 display adapter).

As configured, the A31 will set you back about $2700, a competitive price for this type of machine. In fact, if I hadn't recently replaced my desktop machine, I'd seriously consider the A31 as a replacement: It's quiet, powerful, and mobile. In other words, the A31 is quite possibly the perfect PC. Highly recommended.

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