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The runaway success of Nintendo’s motion-sensitive Wii game controller, with December sales of nearly 1 million units, turned out to be merely a prequel to January’s debut of Apple’s iPhone, a device that redefines expectations, if not quite yet realities, for handheld device interaction and connectivity. Developers are on notice: The next generation of personal, communication-intensive devices demands a break from decades of development for a screen-and-keyboard model.

The hoopla over the iPhone’s consumer-oriented media and voice capabilities leaves only developers appreciating the importance of Apple’s putting an OS X platform into a handheld form factor. The days of defining such devices in terms of narrowly focused OEM software platforms, with short-lived product cycles, may finally be ending—opening considerable new opportunities.

PDAs and Tablet PCs might seem to have paved the post-keyboard path, but these devices’ break from the terminal tradition is superficial. They do replace keyboards with stylus-based shorthand or handwriting input, but under that skin-deep layer of “natural” interaction is still just a green-screen terminal with a rich-client front end and a prettier face. The PDA and the Tablet PC still serve mostly as conduits between the user and the network resource, rather than taking the active role that’s needed for them to become more helpful and far less distracting.

It takes a different perspective to conceive and code intuitive applications for devices that are aware of their environments, both physical and digital, in the manner of the motion-sensing Wii or the intuitively orientation-aware iPhone—whose physical behaviors are tip-of-the-iceberg issues compared with achieving transparent integration of multiple bands and protocols of wireless connection.

Later this year, Sun Microsystems will offer a limited number of developers a chance to explore this territory in a way that is both technically rigorous and (dare we say it?) a lot of fun. At eWEEK Labs, we got the neatest stocking stuffer we’ve ever seen with the late December arrival of an early production unit of the Sun SPOT (Small Programmable Object Technology) Development Kit, a trio of matchbox-sized hardware testbeds that are packaged with associated NetBeans-based development aids and code samples.

You won’t see this package in Toys R Us, but you can sign up to be notified of availability (at a planned package price of $550) at What’s in the compact and extremely polished package—even Apple would be proud to put its logo on it—are two types of Sun SPOT devices. Each of the two identical “free-range” units combines a processor board, sensor board and rechargeable battery; the third unit, dubbed a “base station,” lacks the sensor board and battery (it’s powered by USB connection) and is primarily intended as a radio gateway to free-range units.

The processor board in each Sun SPOT is a system-on-a-chip package built around a 180MHz ARM Thumb processor core and equipped with separate 16KB caches for instruction and data streams; additional on-board memory resources are 512KB of RAM and 4MB of flash memory for nonvolatile storage. At the risk of dating ourselves, we’ll point out that these resemble the specifications of a $15,000 engineering workstation that was on our Labs wish list roughly 20 years ago.

Click here for Peter Coffee’s Top 5 development products of 2006.

A Sun SPOT communicates via either a USB link (which also recharges the battery) or a 2.4GHz IEEE 802.15.4 radio transceiver with integral antenna. We achieved reliable unobstructed line-of-sight communication between devices at distances approaching 100 meters. We made that measurement using the RadioStrength demo application, part of the portfolio of Java-based code and management tools included on a CD in the box. We used an Apple PowerBook as our development and download station, but tools and documentation for Windows and Linux PCs are also included.

The sensor board in the free-range devices adds software-accessible 3-axis accelerometer, temperature sensor, light sensor, and various input-output connections and devices including pressure switches and LEDs. These enable parlor tricks like appearing to pour a glowing LED from one device to another via radio link.

Yes, it is fun, but it’s open-ended fun based on writing real code for non-trivial hardware—which looks to us like a pathway to profit.

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