The Forgotten Ones
By Dan Briody, Mon Apr 28 12:30:00 GMT 2003

Have you hugged a developer today? Wireless software development has cleaved into cliques, and the programmers are staring at the forks in the road.

Here at TheFeature, we believe in giving credit where credit is due. And while big, fancy corporate brand names like Nokia, Orange, and Qualcomm have historically dominated the headlines when it comes to stories about the wireless industry, we think it's time to pay tribute to the little people that really make this business go. With that in mind, we've decided to peer into a world seldom witnessed by ordinary humans. It's a place where caffeine and sugar are the two main food groups. Where poor eyesight is a prerequisite for employment. And where the most dedicated workers still live with their mothers. That's right, we're going into the dark, backlit world of the wireless software developer.

As it turns out, there is a fascinating battle afoot for the hearts and minds of wireless developers. Most people in this business recognize that fact that beyond network quality, handset fashion, and compelling calling plans, it's the software that's going to drive the next-generation of wireless. And that makes the software developers pretty darn important. Companies like Symbian, Qualcomm, and even Microsoft are competing to attract developers to their platforms. As a result the development community has broken into distinct groups.

There are essentially five different platforms of significance that developers can choose from when building an application. Symbian, both an operating system and development platform, dominates the European market. Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) is making a strong charge among the CDMA factions in the U.S. Sun's Java's J2ME platform is popular because in theory it runs on any operating system. Linux is just starting to gain some traction, but has no corporate affiliation (botha plus and minus). And Microsoft's SmartphoneOS is expected to someday be an important operating system and development platform, but so far is a non-starter. These are the five planets in the developer solar system. And the differences are myriad.

Money: The Great Motivator

Developers use a number of criteria when deciding on a development platform. The first, not surprisingly, is money. A developer wants his application to be distributed widely, thereby garnering more royalties. And while developers are very noble creatures, it's still cold cash that gets them coding. "If you're a developer, the ideal situation is that you get your applications supported by as many devices possible, so you can make more money," explains Glenn Letham, managing editor at Wireless Devnet, otherwise known as wireless geek central. Using that logic, one would think that developers would be flocking to J2ME, the "Write once, run everywhere" platform. After all, it runs on any operating system. But that's not entirely the case.

J2ME applications require an operating system to have a built-in Java Virtual Machine (JVM). As of right now, only Symbian builds a JVM in with its operating system, and that leaves a whole lot of uncovered ground. Letham says there is a lot of momentum behind J2ME however, especially because Linux, Microsoft, and maybe even BREW phones are likely to build in JVMs over time.

So where is the money right now? Developers in the U.S. like BREW because of Qualcomm's ownership of the distribution and payment process. "It's not just the footprint that you look at," says Carolynne Schloeder, executive vice president of modtones, a maker of polyphonic ring tones. "You have to look at where you can actually make money, and BREW seems to be one of the few places that you can make money right now." Schloeder says that Qualcomm's central management of the process makes her life considerably easier, and she gets a monthly check without the hassle of managing relationships with multiple carriers and tracking her own sales. "With Symbian it's not that clear when you're getting paid and J2ME can be very restrictive."

That said, it's Symbian that has the biggest global footprint, and that counts for a lot with the developer community. As of January of this year, 9 different Symbian licensees had more then 20 phones using the Symbian OS in development, including models from Nokia, SonyEricsson, Siemens, and NTT DoCoMo. Compare that to BREW, whose partners include Verizon Wireless, KT Freetel in South Korea, and China Unicom, and who boasts Motorola, LG, and Samsung on the handset side, and it starts to look like a two horse race at the moment.

The Dark Horses

It would be a mistake of course to count Linux or Microsoft out. The Linux community is just getting underway, and has already made significant strides in wireless, though not so much on the handset side. "Linux has a lot of potential, especially on the PDA side of the business," says Nimish Shrivastava, President and CTO of Embience, a wireless application developer. And Microsoft is always capable of making a strong push, though most developers admit that they are barely on the radar screen right now. "We just don't see it as a serious competitor in the near term," says Oliver Miao, CEO of Centerscore, a developer of wireless games in J2ME and BREW.

Also, there are a few companies out there they have the potential to level the playing field somewhat and make developers' choices a lot easier. Metroworks creates tools that allow developers to port applications from one platform to another. But unfortunately, it's not as easy as pressing a button. "Devices vary, screen sizes change, performance is different," says Gerardo Dada, marketing executive at Metroworks. "Only about 80 percent of the application is portable." So in the mean time, developers will still be faced with the crucial decision of which platform they want to develop to.

History has a nasty habit of overlooking these brave, malnourished souls. But remember, before you listen to that ringtone, before you play a game of virtual bowling on your phone, there's a developer out there that had to make life-altering decisions so that you could enjoy your phone. Doesn't it feel good to know what they went through?

After failing miserably at every attempt to become the next great American author, Dan Briody settled in San Francisco and started writing about the technology revolution in the mid-90s. Today he is the author of Red Herring's Wireless Watch column, and he is still trying to write the great American novel.