Jxta gets wings with new applications

The network is still the computer if you ask Sun Microsystems Inc. Soon the user, not the server, will be at the center of that network, said Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun, who delivered a keynote presentation Wednesday during the third day of the JavaOne Developers' Conference here.

Just a month after releasing the building blocks for its experimental peer-to-peer networking architecture, Jxta, the researcher at the head of the project explained the technology as a network that revolves around an end user rather than computing devices such as desktops and servers.

Using Jxta, a user isn't limited to accessing a back-end database on the Web to get a file or run a Web application, he said. Instead, users will aggregate information from other sources on a peer-to-peer network. Joined by Greg Papadopoulos, senior vice president and chief technology officer at Sun, Joy showed three basic applications built on the Jxta platform that demonstrate the technology process.

Jxta is a peer-to-peer architecture similar to the type of technology that has become popular for the exchange of digital music files with companies such as Napster Inc. and Gnutella. It was launched in an effort to develop a secure peer-to-peer platform that used the open standards and protocols such as Java and XML. The technology allows a community of users, or peer groups, to communicate and access data from one another rather than depending on a central device such as a server to deliver information.

Unlike the narrow focus of digital music-files sharing, Jxta will create limitless uses, Joy said, offering technology to run applications on a cell phone or desktop computer, or adding efficiency to the way networks share data by allowing them to communicate directly.

"A year ago when we started Jxta everyone was building stacks of software on their own," Joy said, referring to Internet companies creating their own peer-to-peer infrastructure. "We thought (Sun) should do that work on a secure platform based on open, shared protocols."

"They shouldn't have to invent all the lower level stuff themselves," he said.

After a year in development, Sun first delivered the code and toolsets for building applications on the Jxta platform in late April. More than 50,000 developers have downloaded the code from the Jxta community Web site and companies have already begun developing applications. Joy demonstrated a few early concepts that have already taken shape. One was a peer-to-peer chat application that allows users to search for and exchange data with other users on a peer network. The Jxta platform was also used in a demonstration of a content-streaming application that aggregates data from a number of different locations -- such as individual desktop computers signed on to the peer network that has the content cached already -- rather than just pulling it from one central server. As Joy explained, the more people that download a digital stream and have it available on their desktop, the better the quality of that stream will be.

Joy also showed off a peer-to-peer auction service, that can be used for a number of industry applications on any Java-enabled device. One service was a gas auction that could run on a car computer. When a car is running low on gas, for instance, the computer would recognize that and set off an auction with the nearest gas stations that would bid to offer the lowest price.

"Generally it's great stuff," said Nathan Davis, a Web developer for General Electric Corp.'s medical systems division."The difficulty is going to be finding the consumers who will use it."

"It's going to be hard to convince people that they need these services," he said.

The adoption of the consumer services has been the crux for many consumer applications built for the Internet. As seen in the last few years with the World Wide Web and electronic commerce, developing a sound business model is just as difficult as making the technology work. Sun and its partners are still grappling with both of those issues.

"There will be enormous business opportunities (for Jxta) as Java rolls out," Joy said.

That is easier said for Sun, which will release Jxta commercially the same way it has launched many of its software development projects, including Java -- make it free and open to developers and rely on the independent software vendors to work out the business model.

"Hopefully a lot of the innovation you see in the entertainment space will cross over into the business space," Joy said. "That's what we've seen in Japan where there's more than 5,000 applications for Java already."

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