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An Interview with Simon Phipps

by David Sims
03/15/2001

Simon Phipps will deliver the keynote at the O'Reilly Conference on Enterprise Java, on Wednesday, March 28, 2001, at the Westin Hotel in Santa Clara, California.

When we spoke to Simon Phipps last year, he was IBM's Chief XML and Java Evangelist. Since then, he's moved across the street to become Sun Microsystems' Chief Technology Evangelist. O'Reilly Network Editorial Director David Sims began the interview this year by asking him why he left IBM.

Simon Phipps: I moved because I'd spent five years or so talking about the visionary future. And really all of the visionary thinking was coming out of Sun. I had the opportunity to actually go and work with the people who were doing the imagining, rather than continuing to take things second-hand. So I moved over, and I was able to work with the sorts of people who are working on Java, who are working on XML, who are implementing XML within Java, the sort of people who are working on future technologies, like P2P technologies and wireless technologies. I'm much closer to the place where the water is coming to the surface.

Simon Phipps on:

J2ME in phones

Smart web services

Evolution of standards bodies

On his wish list

David Sims: Visionary thinking may be hard to categorize, but what are the areas that you saw things happening in?

Phipps. Well one of the interesting facts that only gradually came to my attention was that Sun has got good relationships with the wireless industry as a whole. And in particular, J2ME is very widely accepted by the people producing devices, like cellphones, and the people producing equipment. It did strike me then, what may be some of the roadblocks that we see in the side of the computer industry that's about more traditional data processing, might be removed by the influence of this community that for so long has been an outsider to traditional data processing. And also, for so long, we've been talking about us converging with traditional data processing.

Sims: We've known that wireless would have to take what it could get from traditional computing, but you're suggesting the opposite is true, that traditional computing can learn from the lessons of porting things to wireless.

Phipps: I think so. While we haven't seen IPv6 coming into mainstream data processing -- and I don't know what the exact reasons are why it hasn't come into mainstream data processing, but I think they are quite largely to do with being perfect as the way we are, thank you. And the world of cellphones has so many devices in it that they're going straight to IPv6. My hunch is that IPv6 is going to bleed back into mainstream data processing as a result of its adoption in the wireless community. For example, I can see peer-to-peer computing being made the flavor of the day by the wireless community and working its way back into mainstream data processing. I can see web services being driven by mobile devices. So I can see some of the surges of energy that are going to bring about evolutionary steps in mainstream data processing could well come or be catalyzed by the wireless community.

Sims: What are you thinking about when you talk about peer-to-peer in wireless applications?

Phipps: I'm thinking that wireless devices are actually a lot smarter than people give them credit for. The average cellphone has maybe 10 DSPs [digital signal processors] in it. It's got processing power that would put the average data center to shame, just sitting in your hand, to do signal processing.

"The dividing line to a peer-to-peer solution isn't as rigid as people are painting it. There is a continuum between the transaction and peer-to-peer activity."

And once you have a uniform machine code platform on there, like J2ME, you've then got the potential to begin to run code in that device. And you can imagine being able to set up peer-to-peer sessions. For example, imagine you are looking for a cinema to go to; you want to go see a movie somewhere. You can imagine there being a peer-to-peer transaction activity between a particular cinema and your cellphone in order to purchase a seat in the cinema. The exchange of a piece of information entitling you to a seat, what you might think of as a ticket perhaps. Now you could think of that movement as a transaction, or you could think of that movement as a peer-to-peer activity. Or imagine groups of people being able to share information as they wander through an unfamiliar city, between mobile devices. You can imagine there being things that are about being able to communicate from device to device, possibly supported by a server somewhere, acting as a directory or a locator. But the dividing line to a peer-to-peer solution isn't as rigid as people are painting it, I don't think. There is a continuum between the transaction and the peer-to-peer activity.

Sims: It sounds similar to what Clay Shirky has called "decentralized enough," in reference to Napster. It's largely peer to peer with a centralized database of users, but it seems to work.

Phipps: Yes. We have this constant desire to try to departmentalize solutions here, when all the really clever stuff happens at the boundaries of the compartments, I think.

Sims: When do you expect that we'll start to see J2ME on more cellphones? I believe there was a trial with them on iMode phones earlier this year. Are you familiar with that?

"People who work with real atoms, rather than just bits, tend to be more cautious than us software people would like them to be."

Phipps: Yes. I think that that particular industry is, like a lot of engineering industries, actually cautious about what it does. When you are pure software, when you have a bug, you can fix it just by sending a new version down. When you're a piece of hardware, you fix it by doing a product recall. And, consequently, people who work with real atoms rather than just bits, tend to be more cautious than us software people would like them to be. The key here is not so much when the phones will be available, but when people will be providing services that exploit those features. Because, to be honest, there are already phones around that have Java capabilities. It's just that you don't know about it, because you can't access them as a developer. But the first places where we're going to see those will be this year. And we'll gradually see a spread of those capabilities. Now when we will see an open, unlocked, any developer-can-use-it space on some of these devices is less clear to me.

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