Last week Qualcomm (San Diego) announced its new BREW. It might sound like a beer or a cup of coffee (or maybe to remind us of that other coffee-flavored programming language, which we'll get to later), but it's a binary runtime environment for wireless CDMA phones equipped with Qualcomm chips.
Until this announcement, Sun Microsystems was the only other vendor on the scene with a manufacturer-neutral platform for low-end, processor-challenged handsets. It enables Java developers to create applications that will run on all wireless devices regardless of the network standards or the platform. So it could be a Palm device in Switzerland, a RIM two-way pager in Canada, or a new i-appli phone in Japan, as long as they are running a fully compliant version of the Mobile Information Devices Profile (MIDP) and the Kilobyte Java Virtual Machine (KVM).
Both solutions are initially targeted at medium to low-end cell phones, two-way pagers or related devices. Both systems also open up phones for developers by providing a standardized, familiar programming environment. And both systems enable mobile network operators and other application developers to create applications for their subscribers to be used on the fly.
One morphing mobile phone, two visions
Qualcomm’s vision of the morphing mobile phone sees the handset software as just one component in a larger package or architecture. Its BREW architecture includes end user applications, middleware enabling over the air (OTA) downloads of applications, intermediary services for mobile operators (application aggregation and licensing), as well as 3rd Party Software Development Kits. This is different from the Sun Microsystems concept, which is more loosely defined.
Sun’s MIDP does not yet define a standard for getting OTA downloads, carriers and phone manufacturers are struggling with that now, says Mans Ullerstam, Research Director, Picofun (Stockholm).
Qualcomm imagines that it will act as an aggregator of BREW-friendly applications. Carriers will then choose applications from Qualcomm’s server work out pricing with the developer and post the application on their own branded portal or servers. Subscribers will automatically be routed to their carrier's download server when they launch BREW MobileShop on their handset. They will see what’s available and then select downloads that suit their needs or wants. After perusing the catalog and choosing a program, the subscriber selects a payment option and then executes the download. The handset automatically installs the software, game or application.
Qualcomm hopes to be revenue sharing with operators, taking a share of the fees charged for downloaded applications.
Sun has not expressed such a goal and is unlikely to do become a service provider, enabling transactions between application developers and network operators. Sun charges the mobile phone manufacturers for licenses, but the network operators and developers do not have to pay license fees, according to David F. Harrah Group Manager, Public Relations, Sun Microsystems.
Wireless java application portals
Wireless Java will create opportunities not only for developers but also for other intermediaries. Its business model is a little less sewn-up than Qualcomm's. For example, on the server side there are opportunities for application aggregation, application sales, distribution, and reselling.
Appstream, for example, is jumping into the market by providing a server side technology that manages the downloading of Java applications to mobile devices. Interestingly, Qualcomm and Sun are both shareholders in this young Palo Alto based company.
Seattle's 4thPass also has a server side solution that it hopes to license to operators and enterprises. "We provide wireless application provisioning infrastructure software, which enables carriers and enterprises to deploy and manage Java applications or MIDlets on J2ME/MIDP complaint mobile devices, such as cell phones and PDAs," according to Javed Chaudry, VP, Business Development.
On the client side, a number of companies brought out products such as KVM optimized for the various platforms, such as Palm devices and Pocket PCs. In addition, web sites and portal are popping up to deliver MIDlets, the name for Wireless Java applications. Some are freeware or shareware sites such as Nifty Cow and Micro Java Central.
The first applications marketplace that plans to support transactions is Digital Mobility's (London) MIDlet Central. Digital Mobility sees itself as a distribution channel for developers.
Registered users and independent software vendors can download, upload, browse and buy a growing number of MIDlet wireless Java applications. There are only 12 MIDlet available so far but the site has only been open a few days. "We're getting a surprising number of hits, considering the handsets are not available yet," says Digital Mobility's Chief Technology Officer and programming wizard Dr. Janko Masic-Flogel.
The site will eventually charge for application downloads but Digital Mobility's main business is IT consulting and selling its packaged software. It is exploiting another market opportunity on the client side: how to manage the downloaded applications. It is hoping to license its client side Tsunami Javaphone software, which is MIDlet application management software, to phone and PDA manufacturers. Tsunami manages application downloads, storage, and editing.
Is it J2ME vs. BREW?
No, we won't see a wireless industry equivalent of the Betamax vs. VHS kind of battle here.
"BREW is not really competing against anything as it is simply a layer that abstracts a mobile phone's hardware and adds some functionality that, in effect, is also provided by the KVM and not just on mobile phones," says Carlos Lozano of the Barcelona based myepoc.com portal and a J2ME developer.
"BREW is similar but has yet to prove that other companies support it," says Hansruedi Heeb, CEO of Esmertec AG, a company that makes a super-fast KVM.
"We are quite excited about Qualcomm's effort and see them as potential partner to help grow the adoption of 3rd party applications for mobile devices. However, currently we are focused on the J2ME platform, as it is a reality compared to BREW. If and when BREW gets adopted as a standard platform, we will be happy to port our technology to offer it also on the BREW platform," says 4the Pass' Chaudry. Hansruedi Heeb of Esmertec AG makes a similar statement.
Qualcomm itself says that BREW does not compete with Wireless Java. "Actually, BREW is complementary to Java and makes getting Java applications onto handsets much easier," says Jeremy James, Director of Marketing, Qualcomm Internet Services. He says that once a KVM is BREW-enabled, Java apps can simply be written to that KVM and they will run just fine on a handset assuming sufficient memory and processing.
Qualcomm's BREW is certainly interesting, but a lot of the device vendors have already committed to Java and may be loath to switch to an unproven technology. "It wouldn't make sense to run Java on top of BREW," says Eric Giguere an expert on J2ME and author of a book on the subject.
Qualcomm says its experience as a handset manufacturer (recently sold to Kyocera) drove the development of BREW. "We developed an early version of BREW to make our own integration efforts faster. It took us nearly a year to integrate the first WAP browser onto our handsets for our carrier customers," recounts James.
"We used a prototype of BREW for the first time when we were integrating the second WAP browser, in mid-stream one of our carrier customers said there was a new version of the browser out and now they wanted us to integrate it so that they could evaluate whether or not to switch to this later one. It took us two weeks. If you were a handset manufacturer, which would you prefer as you seek to get to market quickly?" asks the Qualcomm marketing man.
Until very recently, the handset market was essentially closed to the larger software development community. Wireless Java opens the door to handsets from manufacturers such as Sony, Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, NTT DoCoMo, Motorola, and even two way paging devices, anyone actually who supports puts a compliant KVM and MID profile on the phone.
Qualcomm's real hopes for BREW lie in 3G phones. "Once BREW has proven itself in the current CDMA world, it will be a real choice for operators migrating to 3G, which is based in WCDMA technology," says James. Today CDMA is big in North America and South Korea, but also present in South America and parts of Japan, a total market of some 74 million subscribers as of September 2000.
This development should really give a boost to the wireless market. Letting subscribers choose their own applications and enabling on the fly decisions will make the phone a more dynamic devices. "People won't have to just live with whatever was pre-installed at the factory," says James.
Now for the reality bytes part
Qualcomm may have announced the BREW platform last week but it won't be available to developers until May 2001.
The latest rumors say that J2ME-embedded phones will not be available in the U.S until Q3 2001.
Expect a similar time frame in Europe, where Motorola and Siemens say "sometime this year."
So far each phone manufacturer has come out with a different SDK for Wireless Java apps, suggesting it isn't going to be as straightforward as expected.
Valerie Thompson is a freelance business and technology journalist, specialized in emerging networking and computing topics. She lives in Zurich, Switzerland.