"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 17 April 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Burn Baby Burn



The idea was to have a network

language for building

applications that would run on

everything from cell phones to

interactive television sets.

Now, five years after the Green

team started hacking away on

Oak, the new object-oriented

language has yet to take over

the world, and the blank spot on

top of your TV set still remains

empty. But Oak's got a cool new

name - Java - and it's certainly

a great tool for creating the

next generation of server




While Sun was tussling over the

future of distributed computing

with the cable companies, the

original developers of Unix and

C were making their own plans

for world domination, under the

now-familiar codename of

"pervasive computing." Unlike

Sun's team, though, these

researchers haven't yet let

themselves be sidetracked by the

great Web hypeout. If they

remain focused on anything but

the browser, at least they can't

be accused of not thinking

outside the box.


[Map of Hell]

Bell Labs, formerly AT&T Bell

Labs and now under the umbrella

of the $21 billion Lucent

Technologies, has announced

Inferno, software they hope will

soon be everywhere. It can run

on a wide variety of platforms,

from remote controls up to

workstations and servers. It

offers operating system

functionality, a

platform-independent and

buzzword-compliant language

called Limbo, a virtual machine

termed Dis, and, to make the

marketer's product naming

nightmare complete, a network

protocol called, affectionately

enough, Styx.



What the press release doesn't

make claims for is who might be

interested, and what those

people might want to do with it.

While Bell Labs has an

impressive track record when it

comes to operating systems and

programming languages, the

average consumer (let's call her

Vampira) would call the National

Guard were she to find Plan 9

pre-installed on her new Gateway

laptop. Inferno itself is not a

consumer product, but it finds

its way into all manner of

end-user appliances. If the

naming of Java reflected the

hope to see it become as

popular and habit-forming as the

caffeinated beverage, "Inferno"

must fan the flames of Bell

Labs' desire to see it catch

like wildfire among the emerging

class of computerish consumer



[Remote Control]

As impossible as it might sound,

we suspect that all eyes on

Murray Hill are not fixed on the

Web. They're undoubtedly where

yours will probably be this

evening - watching TV. By

infrared between your remote

control and your ITV, or over

cable between your ITV and your

service provider, Lucent wants

Inferno to seamlessly integrate

a whole range of devices.


[Plan 9]

So how is this different from

those Java-based operating

systems on $500 network

computers? For starters, it's

already written. Hardware

vendors may find a few things

are missing - for example, an

operating system - if they want

to ship systems based on Java.

By contrast, all Inferno needs

is someone to license it. (After

that person reads the press

release and believes Lucent

will actually have a shipping

product this summer, of course.)

In addition, Inferno is more than

just a Limbo program loader,

like early versions of DOS.

Inferno provides a rich

suite of resources, drawing

from work on the ill-fated,

never-quite-completed Plan 9.

What this means is that it could

be possible to run a Java

application on a box running the

Inferno operating system, but

you're unlikely to ever run a

Limbo app on a Java terminal.


[Surfboard 1.0]

The downside for Lucent's

stockholders? It's too late for

Limbo to be the network language

that Java has become. With

enough strategic alliances and

licensees (including AT&T) to

make it jittery, Java is already

on too many desktops to be

burned by Inferno. Then again,

it may still be too early for

Inferno to do anything but

smolder. Inferno could find

itself burned into the ROMs of

network computers, but these

glorified dumb terminals could

go the way of PDAs and AT&T's EO

Personal Communicator. The idea

of a unified collection of

low-cost devices has been

around longer than the AT&T ads

for smart houses, but we still

don't know anyone who phones

home from the airport to tell

their house to turn off the



[Dante Alighieri]

Whether the world needs two

versions of C++ for Workgroups -

Java and Limbo - is debatable.

Given the lack of a decent GUI

authoring environment for Java

more than a year after its

introduction, it's unlikely

we'll see one soon for Limbo;

but if Lucent were to provide

one as part of the Inferno

package, it might well grease

the rails for the first set of

third-party developers.



So, as with most products, it

probably all comes down to a

matter of marketing. If Lucent

can convince people that Inferno

isn't a Java-come-lately - the

Inferno team may do well not to

build a Web browser - and if

people don't mind their TVs

being smarter than the

characters seen on them, it may

take more than a cup of Java to

put out this flame.

courtesy of Ian Flaming