Java chip for handhelds unveiled

The Xpresso microprocessor, which is being built by IBM, speeds up applications by eliminating several layers of software. Zucotto engineers have ported Sun's tiny Kilobyte Virtual Machine (KVM), which actually processes the Java code, to the chip itself.

Zucotto executives claim Xpresso can run Java applications 20 to 40 times faster than other Java processors that run a Java Virtual Machine as a separate software layer.

The first products incorporating them are expected by mid-2001.

Zucotto is aiming the microprocessor at manufacturers of mobile phones and other wireless devices, and Java programmers who want to write applications for this class of device. The company has contracts with two manufacturers so far, and development agreements for several more for testing and preliminary application development, Zucotto President and CEO Mark Wells says. He says the company will announce its customers later.

The company also released its Whiteboard software development kit for wireless Java applications, and the Xpressoboard hardware development kit. Developers run the SDK on any Win32 computer to create the application and simulate its performance. Then the software is moved to the HDK, which is a circuit board that includes the Xpresso chip, to test out the system.

Wells says that initially the Zucotto chip will likely be a companion processor on mobile phones or other devices. The existing processor will hand off Java processing to Xpresso. In future devices, especially ones designed to handle interactive applications and multimedia, Xpresso can be the principal processor.

The future of handhelds can be seen, says Wells, in NTT Docomo's adoption of Java and the KVM as the application development platform for its successful Imode cellular network. Although Imode uses a different protocol than Wireless Application Protocol, the basic thrust of both today is similar; Imode and WAP push text-based information to a wireless handset. With Java and the Xpresso processor, Imode will be able to push true applications to devices and their users. The handset becomes, like the PC, a programmable device.

Instead of just lines of text, users will be able to receive a menu of applications, such as a video broadcast, an audio file, and so on.

Zucotto is designing a version of the chip that will include support for Bluetooth, the short-range, low-power radio link between portable PCs, mobile phones and other similar handheld devices. Bluetooth devices will be able to share data wirelessly among themselves.

Wells said he expects a sharp jump in interest among device manufacturers in the wake of this week's announcement of a joint venture by Ericsson and Microsoft. The new company, 70 per cent owned by the Swedish cellphone manufacturer, will combine Microsoft Windows 2000 Server and Microsoft Exchange with Ericsson's wireless infrastructure and mobile Internet products. First products are due out by year-end.

"The deal opens Ericson's terminals [handsets] to the full range of Microsoft applications," Wells says. "This has sparked a paradigm shift among the other vendors." They'll have to open their own products to applications as quickly as possible, and the way to do that, he predicts, will be to use Zucotto's Xpresso chip to run Java programs.

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