Wednesday, October 27, 1999

Pot Pourri

This article appears in slightly different form in the September/October 1999 issue of IEEE Micro © 1999 IEEE.

This time I look at a loosely related collection of interesting ideas. Jini is a new technology from Sun. It aims at enabling you to network anything, anytime, anywhere. Java is a programming language and a platform. It has matured considerably since I first wrote about it (Micro Review, June, 1996). WinWriters is a support organization for online help developers. They recently put on a conference about JavaHelp. Adobe Acrobat is the principal tool for working with Adobe's portable document format (PDF).


Many people have recognized the potential of large numbers of mildly intelligent communicating  devices. Devices as disparate as switches, lights, cameras, sensors, printers, vending machines, and large relational databases might all benefit from exchanging information. In the 1980s, Micro's editor-in-chief, Ken Sakamura, headed the TRON Project, a large cooperative effort based on this idea.

Java's roots are in embedded systems and consumer electronics. From the first, it was also intimately associated with networking. Jini brings these threads together to provide a model for networking arbitrary devices.

Many systems for distributed computing run afoul of the seven fallacious assumptions identified by computer scientist Peter Deutsch:
  • The network is reliable.
  • Latency is zero.
  • Bandwidth is infinite.
  • The network is secure.
  • Topology doesn't change.
  • There is one administrator.
  • Transport cost is zero.
Jini provides explicit support for the difficulties and failure modes that these assumptions try to hide. The result is a powerful mechanism built on a few simple ideas and protocols. Because it builds on Java, Jini leads developers to this mechanism along a short, familiar path.

Here is a slightly oversimplified explanation of what Jini is and how it works. It begins when someone starts a lookup service, which is essentially the only piece of system administration required. Devices that have services to offer can register with a nearby lookup service when they connect to a network. They don't need to know its location in advance.

Registering means leasing space on the lookup service for a small proxy program to be downloaded to devices seeking services of the registered provider's type. The proxy knows how to communicate with the provider and implements a standard interface for services of that type.

Jini has a concept of remote events. It is a simple model that separates the event mechanism from event policy, leaving the latter to individual applications. It facilitates the use of third-party event listening services, and it supports Jini transactions. Transactions are the key to designing robust, reliable distributed applications.

This brief overview of Jini doesn't capture all of the details--even all of the major details. I hope it gives you the general idea.

Core Jini by W. Keith Edwards (Prentice Hall, 1999, 812pp,, ISBN 0-13-014469-X, $49.99)

Keith Edwards is a researcher at Xerox PARC, where he works on distributed object technology and user interfaces for information management. He was an early Jini user -- long before its first public release. He understands the underlying issues and philosophy, and he explains them clearly in this book.

Edwards' book is especially valuable, because he combines an intelligent discussion of the underlying concepts with a clear explanation of how to perform the basic tasks. He understands what developers need to know, and he explains the material patiently, using complete, working examples to illustrate the points.

Edwards sees Jini as resting on five key concepts: discovery, lookup, leasing, remote events, and transactions. He explains these concepts lucidly and shows how they fit together to make a complete workable system. If you read this explanation carefully, you will understand Jini at a significant and useful level.

On one hand, I'd like to say that everyone should read this book. This is surely true of the first 120 pages, which cover the conceptual material. On the other hand, this is a highly technical book. If you're not a working Java programmer, most of the book will make difficult reading. With that caveat, I recommend it highly.


Java Power Reference by David Flanagan (O'Reilly, 1999, CD-ROM,, ISBN 1-56592-589-0, $19.95)

The Java Power Reference is a CD-based top-level quick reference for the Java 2 platform. It provides useful functionality not available elsewhere, but it falls short of what Flanagan could have done with the material he has already produced for his books.

Flanagan's Java in a Nutshell (see Micro Review, June 1996) has grown into a series of four books, making quick access and effective cross referencing difficult. The material cries out for an online approach. Rather than taking this approach, Flanagan has decided to leave the detailed material to the books. He says:
So, while Java in a Nutshell contains a paragraph or two about each class and interface, the Java Power Reference contains a paragraph or two about each package.
At 107 megabytes, the Java Power Reference falls far short of filling the CD. I think Flanagan would do his users a service by copying those extra paragraphs from the books onto the CD. In fact, I'll be surprised if he doesn't do something like that after he brings all the nutshell books up to date.

The best thing about the Java Power Reference is that it gives you an overview of the Java 2 platform and lets you explore it. You can find a lot of tantalizing packages, but you won't find many words about what they do and how the designers intended you to use them.

The other important thing the Java Power Reference gives you is a search capability. You can search for any package, class, method, or field name, without having to hunt through the hierarchy for it. You can even perform wildcard searches for names you're not sure of.

The Java Power Reference is a useful supplement to the online documentation that comes with the JDK distribution. It's not everything it could be, but it's well worth the price.


The WinWriters organization (, based in Seattle WA, specializes in training and supporting developers of online help systems. Their principal, Joe Welinske, is an expert in the field and a good organizer. In May, 1999, I attended their JumpStart Conference for JavaHelp Technology.

JavaHelp is one of many HTML-based formats for online help. Because the JavaHelp API is based on the Java foundation classes (JFC), the JavaHelp format is well suited to providing online help for Java programs. It provides many excellent capabilities not available in other formats.

All the major vendors of online help authoring tools have announced support for JavaHelp, but Sun is not supporting the JavaHelp API aggressively. You can find the JavaHelp page on the website if you already know the URL, but the main pages have no obvious links to it. The field of HTML-based online help methodologies is extremely competitive, so JavaHelp is unlikely to succeed if Sun's support remains lukewarm.

Despite JavaHelp's uncertain future, I'm glad I attended the JumpStart Conference. WinWriters put together a focused series of presentations that covered the material. They integrated vendor presentations with talks by relatively impartial (and highly regarded) online help developers. They accommodated questions, but kept the program on schedule and deflected the occasional "I just want to hear myself talk" contributions.

WinWriters puts on many conferences of this sort. I haven't attended others, but I have heard only good reports of them. The WinWriters website contains summaries and supplemental information from recent ones. Be sure to visit it if you are interested in online help systems.

Adobe Acrobat

Adobe's PostScript language created the desktop publishing industry. It decoupled publishing applications from printer drivers by providing a universal output format. It made WYSIWYG possible by carrying the same output format to display screens.

While PostScript works well for communicating between computers and printing devices, PostScript files are not very good for document storage and interchange, because they are large and difficult to manipulate. Adobe's portable document format (PDF) addresses this situation. Adobe Acrobat, and its companion program, the distiller, convert PostScript files into much smaller PDF files. The freely available PDF viewer allows anyone to view or print PDF files.

These programs have been evolving for several years, and Adobe has just brought out version 4 in a convenient package.

Adobe Acrobat 4 (Adobe Systems,, $99 upgrade)

Because the PDF reader is freely available and many websites provide some documents in PDF, I assume you are generally aware of the features and capabilities of version 3. Version 4 provides substantial improvements in many areas.

Acrobat 4 facilitates collaborative review of PDF documents through its support of annotations and digital signatures. PDF places annotations in separate layers on top of the original, so you can always see and recover the original. It lets you view and manipulate annotations in a number of ways. Acrobat 4 includes many annotation tools (pencil, clip art, highlighter, and so forth) that were not available in earlier versions.

Acrobat 4 also provides better and clearer options for font bundling and file compression. These were sources of problems with prior versions. It is increasingly likely that high-end print shops will accept PDF 4 documents as input. Adobe provides a mechanism for print shops to specify packages of options to allow you to prepare PDF files to their specifications.

You can convert documents to PDF much more easily than with earlier versions. In many cases you can simply drag documents to the distiller icon. Microsoft Office 2000 programs can all write PDF directly.

One of my favorite features is Acrobat's ability to capture individual HTML pages or entire websites. The resulting document contains all of the links in the original but resides in a single file. You can view or print it in formatted pages, without the usual awkward breaks of printed HTML pages.

Acrobat 4 is a significant improvement over Acrobat 3. It will make many people's lives a lot easier. If you haven't got it yet, rush out and buy it. It's a real winner.