What's BREWing in Europe?
By Tom Hume, Tue Jun 14 08:30:00 GMT 2005

Frustrated with BREW's the lack of traction with European operators, Qualcomm is instead focusing on deep customization of handsets as an inroad into Europe.


Qualcomm's explanation for its difficulties in Europe is straightforward: it initially concentrated on selling BREW into the CDMA operators it knew best, and during this time the rest of the world made committments to alternative platforms like J2ME, together with the delivery systems to support them. It probably doesn't help that the GSM world is a little distrustful of Qualcomm, a fact which the company seems well aware of. At its recent BREW developers' conference, it went to great pains to emphasise a worldview that sees it as a small part of a much larger industry, rather than a dominant player.

So where next? CEO Paul Jacobs summed up a recurring theme at the conference quite succinctly: "With voice, one user interface works for everyone, but as operators differentiate themselves through suites of data services, differences in UI are required". Right now, these differentiations tend to involve identifying certain use cases that can drive revenue, and simplifying them: for instance, taking a photo and sending it. The idle screen and any on-phone shopping environment are also key opportunities for "quick wins", and this seems to chime with activities that European operators have been carrying out recently; look at the home-screens that Orange has deployed on a wide range of handsets over the last year as an example, or the on-device applications for Series 60 handsets which O2 uses to drive traffic to its O2 Active portal.

Last year's acquisition of Cambridge, UK-based Trigenix by Qualcomm has, the company says, let it combine the eponymous front-end skinning tool that Trigenix offered with the underlying BREW APIs to provide uiOne, a tool which allows for "deep customisation": complete control of the handset interface and its applications. This in itself is quite compelling, but not particularly revolutionary: Symbian, Microsoft and Nokia have all been emphasising their ability to provide operator-customised handsets for some time now. And operators definitely want this: look at the bold step Vodafone took in specifying the interface for Sharp GX series of handsets, used to herald the launch of Vodafone Live!.

The opportunity to retain a consistent user interface when moving between devices is an attractive one, simplifying the user experience and reducing training and familiarisation costs for operators.  Ian Clarke of O2 also spoke at BREW 2005 about the benefits of shortened time-to-market and ownership of IPR in the area of interface design. And it's not just about the operators: customised user interfaces are seen as good for device vendors for whom the operators are customers, and for the end-user, for whom personalisation of handsets is an accepted need (the precedent being ringtones and logos). 

So tools like uiOne will provide an important piece of the puzzle, allowing operators to build targeted handset experiences which help them differentiate themselves from their competitors and generate more revenue. It also makes sense for a company like Qualcomm (or Symbian), which isn't a consumer brand, to be the provider of these tools, so there's no conflict of interest over who owns the customer experience. And it's clear that there won't be a single winner in this market; operators won't want to rely on one provider for all their handsets, but neither do they want to deal with the 20-30 handset platforms that a Tier 1 operator currently supports. Qualcomm sees the industry consolidating around two to five platforms.

Where does this leave BREW in Europe? It seems to have another chance to prove itself to operators, this time as the basis of a customisation tool; and if uiOne succeeds in getting some traction over here, perhaps in conjunction with Asian device manufacturers who are becoming more prevalent as 3G takes off, then the BREW ecosystem might get in through the back door after all.