Since its introduction by Sun in 1995, Java™ has become one of the most important programming languages around. Today, it is found in every category of computerized systems, including embedded systems. Although still not as popular as C in the embedded programming world, it is nonetheless being used in an ever-increasing number of designs.
I will not attempt to introduce you to Java or any of the technology surrounding it. Instead, I refer you to the plethora of books on the matter, including many by O'Reilly. There is, nonetheless, one basic issue we need to review before continuing. Essentially, any discussion on Java involves a discussion of three different items: the Java programming language, the Java Virtual Machine (JVM), and the Java Runtime Environment (JRE), which is made up of the various Java classes.
There are many packages, both free and proprietary, that provide Java functionality in Linux. In our discussion, we will concentrate on the freely available packages. Specifically, we will discuss the Blackdown project, the open source virtual machines, and the GNU Compiler for the Java programming language. I will not cover the installation or the use of these tools as there is little difference between installing and using them on a Linux workstation and in an embedded Linux system. I will, nonetheless, refer you to the appropriate documentation for such instructions.
The Blackdown project (http://www.blackdown.org/) is the group that ports Sun's Java tools to Linux. This effort is entirely based on Sun's own Java source code and provides Linux ports of Sun's tools, including the Java Development Kit (JDK) and the JRE. This is the JDK and JRE most often used in Linux workstations and servers.
This project has enjoyed a privileged, and sometimes troubled, relationship with Sun. Since this project is entirely based on Sun source code and this code is not available as open source, it is entirely dependent on Sun's goodwill to help the Linux community.
Actually, the Blackdown project does not distribute any source code. Instead, it distributes prebuilt binaries for the various processor architectures to which its developers have ported Sun's Java tools. As the project's FAQ points out, you need to contact Sun to get access to the source code.
According to the licensing agreements between Sun and Blackdown, you are allowed to download the JDK for your own use, but you cannot distribute it without entering into an agreement with Sun. You can, however, download the JRE and distribute it as-is with few limitations.
Before releasing new versions of their work, the Blackdown team must meet the requirements of Sun's compatibility tests. Hence, consecutive Blackdown releases do not necessarily support all the architectures of the previous releases. Release 1.3.0-FCS, for instance, supports the PPC and the x86, while 1.3.1-rc1 supports only the ARM. The complete list of Blackdown releases and supported platforms is available from the project's status page at http://www.blackdown.org/java-linux/ports.html.
To run the JDK or the JRE, you will need glibc, at the very least, and the X Window System with its libraries if you wish to use the AWT classes. Given the constraints of most embedded systems, only those with very large amounts of storage and processing power will be able to accommodate this type of application.
For more information regarding the Blackdown project, the tools it provides, how to install them, how to operate them, and the licensing involved, see the Blackdown FAQ at http://www.blackdown.org/java-linux/docs/support/faq-release/.
Given Blackdown's hurdles and its dependence on Sun, a number of projects have been started to provide open source, fully functional JVMs, without using any of Sun's source code. The most noteworthy one is Kaffe.
Since there isn't any consensus on the feasibility of using any of the various open source VMs as the main JVM in an embedded Linux project, I will only mention the VMs briefly and will not provide any information regarding their use. You are invited to look at each VM and follow the efforts of the individual teams.
The Kaffe Java Virtual Machine (http://www.kaffe.org/) is based on a product sold commercially by Transvirtual Inc., KaffePro VM, and is a clean-room implementation of the JVM. Although no new releases of the project have been made since July 2000 and although this VM is not 100% compatible with Sun's VM, according to the project's web site, it is still the main open source alternative to Sun's VM.
There are other projects that may eventually become more important, such as Japhar (http://www.japhar.org/), Kissme (http://kissme.sourceforge.net/), Aegis (http://aegisvm.sourceforge.net/), and Sable VM (http://www.sablevm.org/). For a complete list of open source VM projects, see the list provided by yet another open source VM project, the joeq VM (http://joeq.sourceforge.net/), at http://joeq.sourceforge.net/other_os_java.htm. See each project's respective web site and documentation for information on how to install and operate the VM.
As part of the GNU project, the GNU Compiler for the Java programming language (gcj) is an extension to gcc that can handle both Java source code and Java bytecode. In particular, gcj can compile either Java source code or Java bytecode into native machine code. In addition, it can also compile Java source into Java bytecode. It is often referred to as an ahead-of-time (AOT) compiler, because it can compile Java source code directly into native code, in contrast with popular just-in-time (JIT) compilers that convert Java bytecode into native code at runtime. gcj does, nevertheless, include a Java interpreter equivalent to the JDK's java command.
GNU gcj is a fairly active project, and most core Java class libraries are already available as part of the gcj runtime libraries. Although most windowing components, such as AWT, are still under development, the compiler and its runtime environment can already be used to compile and run most command-line applications.
As with other GNU projects, gcj is fairly well documented. A good starting place is the project's web site at http://gcc.gnu.org/java/. In the documentation section of the web site, you will find a compile HOWTO, a general FAQ, and instructions on how to debug Java applications with gdb. You should be able to use the compile HOWTO in conjunction with my earlier instructions regarding the GNU toolchain to build gcj for your target.
 The source code for Sun's Java tools is available under the terms of the Sun Community Source License (SCSL). The SCSL is not one the licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative (OSI). See http://opensource.org/licenses/ for the complete list of approved licenses.
 That is, it was written from scratch without using any of Sun's Java source code.