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Carriers, handset makers vie for interface control

A Macromedia executive says wireless carriers are demanding specific menus, buttons and functions. Could Flash be the answer?

SAN FRANCISCO--Wireless carriers and cell phone makers are fighting for control over the user interface on handsets, according to a key Macromedia executive.

Major wireless carriers outside the United States in the past have been less dominating about cell phone designs, giving handset makers freedom to innovate. However, now Japan's NTT DoCoMo, and Vodafone and Orange in Europe, are routinely demanding specific ways of maneuvering through menus and buttons with certain functions, Juha Christensen, president of the mobile and device business at Macromedia, said Wednesday during the Web 2.0 Conference here.

The problem is affecting developers who are vying for a share of the $2 billion in revenue that cell phone subscribers spent last year on wireless features such as downloadable games and ring tones, said Trip Hawkins, chief executive of wireless software maker Digital Chocolate.

"Carriers are insistent on having buttons on their phones to end their calls," he said. "But by pushing them, you can blow up everything in your memory sometimes."

Macromedia is in the middle of an ambitious effort to expand the use of Flash--once seen mainly as a format for blinking Web ads--into a broad foundation for delivering Internet applications and building interactive Web sites. The company now plans to use Flash to let phones download and change many of these cell phone elements from carriers.

Mobile phones have become an increasingly important part of the Flash drive. DoCoMo signed on last year as the first major carrier to offer Flash content. Macromedia now has licensing agreements with more than 70 mobile device manufacturers and wireless carriers.

"We are putting Flash on hundreds of millions of phones that will enable a whole new industry of uploading new user interfaces," Christensen said. "I really don't think my handset maker or wireless operator knows what the customer wants. Yet there's a battle between handset makers and operators on who will own the interface."

NTT DoCoMo in New York had no immediate comment. Representatives for Orange and Vodafone could not be reached for comment.