Java Time!
By Joachim Bamrud, Tue Jul 29 00:00:00 GMT 2003

Java is growing fast on wireless devices. A closer look at the benefits and the outlook of the technology.

Brian Levin, president of U.S.-based mobile content provider Mobliss, loves his Java. The technology that is. "It takes games and the interactive experience to another level," he says. "The biggest advantage is having something that is downloadable in the client, that doesn't have to be embedded. You can get live scoreboards...snow reports, games, stock tickers."

Java, a technology developed by Sun Microsystems, enables wireless web sites to feature more advanced images - both still and moving - and are widely used for mobile games, including those developed by Mobliss as well as its competitors. There are two wireless versions of Java - one simply known as wireless Java and another known as J2ME (Java 2 Platform Micro Edition). The J2ME includes Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP), which in its latest specification (2.0) includes multimedia (Mp3, MMS, video) and more advanced game development support.

“MIDP 2.0. Is going to blow MIDP 1.0 out of the water,” says David J. Stennett, director of operations at Midletsoft Corp., a developer specializing in J2ME.

However, games aren't the only application that benefit from Java. "Most of the attention in the early market is on games, but Java goes beyond that, for example to offer richer maps for driving directions, or interactive graphics for a product catalog," says Carl Zetie, vice president of Giga Information Group.

In fact, some analysts are predicting that games won't be the main use of Java in a few years. ARC Group forecasts that location-based services will be the main user of Java after 2004.

A key advantage with Java is that it can operate independent from a network. "This alleviates user frustrations with slow wireless data transmission speeds, dropped sessions and high per-minute prices," says Becky Diercks, director of wireless research at In-Stat/MDR.

It also means that a sales manager on a plane can download sales statistics and then view and chart them in a variety of ways without having to constantly fetch new views across the network, adds Zetie. Or a consumer could download a local portion of a restaurant guide and sort or search it on various criteria, again without constantly crossing the network, he points out.

"Of course, such applications are also possible with other platforms besides Java, but Java's advantage over those others is that as the (likely) standard, it creates a very large potential audience for application and service developers that doesn't restrict your potential market to certain networks or certain manufacturers," Zetie says.

German developer Brodos recently claimed that it could reduce the price of sending text messages by 60 percent by using Java. Last, but not least, Java can boast an impressive number of developers. A survey by Evans Data Corporation among more than 500 wireless developers in January 2001, showed that a third - 29.4 percent - planned to target Java/J2ME. That was higher than other operating systems like Palm and Windows CE. A year later, more than half - 53.6 percent - of 600 developers surveyed said they were using Java.

The large number of developers working on Java means a fast-growing offer of content, a key factor in boosting mobile Internet use.

“Java holds considerable promise for more compelling consumer applications,” says John Jackson, a wireless analyst with the Yankee Group. "Java is going to be critically important," adds Zetie. "If there is going to be a standard on mobile phones and other small mobile devices, it's going to be Java, and without a standard there won't be the kind of thriving mobile economy that everybody's hopes are resting on."

There are currently 26.3 million Java-enabled mobile handsets worldwide, according to Jackson. That's up from last year when there were 14.7 million handsets, according to ARC Group. The dominant share of the handsets - more than 80 percent - are in Asia, especially Japan, according to Jackson.

All the leading phone producers, including Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson, are including or plan to include Java on their phones. All in all, 15 handset manufacturers are developing J2ME devices, according to Diercks.

"All of the first-tier and most of the second-tier handset makers are backing J2ME - and by "backing" it I mean bringing actual products to market, not merely signing up for some standards body or industry consortium," says Zetie.

Among recent models shipped are the Siemens M50, the Nokia 3410 and the Motorola i95cl (the first Motorola color-screen phone in the US).

Java and Other Technologies

Like any other technology, of course, Java is not perfect.

"Applications have to be downloaded before they can be used - and with limited memory on a small phone, you may find yourself swapping applications in and out, which could become tedious," Zetie says. "That would be inconvenient if you just wanted some quick information such as checking whether a train is on time: you would spend more time downloading the application than reading the information." That is one reason why J2ME will be co-existing alongside WAP and Web browsers (and even browsers being written in Java), he predicts.

Another disadvantage is that carriers and producers are creating proprietary applications based on Java, analysts and content developers say. "Each carrier has different implementations for different handsets, different flavors of J2ME with different extensions, so synergies you were supposed to get have not materialized," says Levin.

For example, NTT DoCoMo has iAppli applications based on J2ME, but those couldn't be accessed or used by customers of other carriers because they are proprietary, adds Diercks. "That basically negates the usefulness of having a standard," she says. Java is increasingly also facing "competition" from two other rich-content technologies: Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW), developed by Qualcomm, and Microsoft 2002 SmartPhone software.

One major advantage BREW has over Java is that the former is built into the chip of the phone itself, making it faster than Java. "BREW's main advantage... is that it is built in closer to the phone, and is really meant to work on a phone, so it's going to optimize a phone (not a PDA)," says Diercks.

But with solutions from companies like Zucotto that include Java into chipsets that disadvantage should disappear, says Stennett.

However, Qualcomm and several independent analysts don't view BREW as a rival to Java, but a complement. J2ME can even run on BREW. Insignia Solutions recently launched a system, Mobile Foundation, that enables any BREW device to have full access to any Java application. "It's not a BREW versus Java issue" says Jackson. "It's a BREW and Java issue."

BREW only works over networks that use CDMA technology, which is largely limited to the United States and Korea. On the other hand, CDMA networks are always timed with satellites, which make them more ideal for location-based applications, Diercks points out.

Verizon Wireless, the top U.S. carrier, is aggressively pushing BREW, but its goal of having one million BREW-enabled handsets on the U.S. market over the next year still pales compared with the current Java availability, says Jackson.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is following a dual policy of both competing with, and using, Java. The Seattle giant has stated that it doesn’t plan to support Java after 2004, which spurred Sun to file an anti-trust lawsuit in March.

However, the long-awaited (and delayed) Sendo device that uses Microsoft’s smartphone technology also includes Java.

"The OEMs themselves are clearly deciding that Java will co-exist alongside the native platform, even on Microsoft-powered devices," Zetie says. "And since in the eyes of many, Microsoft itself can't win regardless of what it does or doesn't do with Java, it may be simplest for Microsoft to leave it to the OEMs to decide - and the OEMs will presumably do what the market demands."

Java's advantage over BREW and Microsoft is that as the likely standard, it creates a very large potential audience for application and service developers that doesn't restrict the potential market to certain networks or certain manufacturers, according to Zetie.

Developers say J2ME's success will be challenged, however, if handset makers increase their control over the software.

"It would make no sense for Java to be restricted, when in fact it's restricted enough by its small size," says Stennett. "To gut it out would utterly kill it. It's like buying a Ferrrari with a Ford Escort motor."

Thanks to the support from the top phone producers, Java is expected to grow significantly over the next couple of years.

"I expect ...that Java will be on almost every mid and upper range handset over the next two years," says Jon Bostrom, Sun’s director of wireless Java.

ARC Group forecasts a whopping 289.7 million handsets next year - a figure growing to 607.6 million in 2006. Jackson expects much of the future growth to come in Europe and the United States.

"The big question of course is not how many will be shipped but whether Americans and Europeans will actually use phones as data devices, and that depends on what content is made available," Zetie warns. "Nobody really knows how many will be used - as opposed to merely shipped - until we see whether content providers come out with compelling content at attractive prices."

The experience with WAP, where only a small percentage of the WAP phones shipped are regularly used to access data, ought to provide a pause for thought for those predicting "millions and billions" of J2ME handsets in use, he says.

Predicts Stennett: "Java will peak for consumers in the next two years - and will reign supreme thereafter until something better replaces it."

Joachim Bamrud is an award-winning journalist with 18 years experience as a writer and editor in the United States, Europe and Latin America. Bamrud has worked for various print, broadcast and online media, including Latin Trade, Reuters and UPI.