This week some of the biggest wireless players are coming together in San Francisco for JavaOne, the largest trade show for the programming language. Nokia President Pekko Ala-Pietila is a featured speaker at the conference. Other wireless giants, such as Japan's NTT DoCoMo, will detail how the company managed to lure more than 23 million mobile-phone subscribers with Java-powered services such as cell phone games or ring-tone downloads.
"I see that bit of old-school Java fervor in the mobile and embedded space," said Gartner analyst Mark Driver. "It's a new, emerging, exploding market."
Once just a blip on the wireless radar screen, Java has become a major component of the industry. Sun Microsystems' programming language works with other Java software to allow programs to run on different types of systems, despite differences between the underlying hardware. Mobile phone makers such as Nokia and Motorola use Java so phones can download games or other software.
An estimated 11,000 Java programmers are developing software to turn phones into calculators, MP3 players and miniature televisions, to name a few examples.
But along with the growing enthusiasm for Java in the wireless industry comes some concern that the technology may not be quite ready for prime time. A series of phone recalls has raised questions about the introduction of new applications for cellular phones. The use of Java is just one of many elements that has come under industry scrutiny.
A recent Giga Information Group report pointed out that phones that use Java might not be ready for the market. "Java is still very immature on small devices," the report said. Recent recalls "are more proof that Java phones are not ready for prime time with the mass-market consumer or the enterprise."
A number of new wireless devices will be unveiled at the JavaOne show.
J-Phone, a Japanese wireless company, will show its J-SHO7, a handset that can display moving 3D color images and also lets people play video games. Santa Cruz, Calif.-based LightSurf Technologies will present a new method for wireless messaging, a technique that CEO Philippe Kahn calls "wireless visual messages."
Wireless software maker ThinAirApps will announce what it says is a faster way to build cell phone applications using Java. And Nextel Communications is expected to announce a trial run of Java applications on its own North American network.
Newcomer Gomid, a software maker, will introduce a new Java-based browser for cell phones that can display traditional Web sites along with new mobile Web sites featuring 3D images.
Carriers are offering the new services as a way to make up for losses from the dwindling price of a telephone call, once a prime source of revenue. Most telephone service providers are creating higher-speed networks to deliver games, videos or Web browsing on handsets. Research backs up the new strategies, as market researcher IDC recently found that 61 percent of U.S. and European wireless owners would consider downloading software for their wireless devices.
Analysts air concerns
Java has proved to be an industry favorite to help push mobile phones in this new strategic direction. But software is proving troublesome. Earlier this year, Nokia acknowledged that a phone in the hands of thousands of U.S. consumers wouldn't work with upcoming higher-speed networks because of a software glitch.
In the past six months, two sets of phones for NTT DoCoMo wireless subscribers have been recalled. Initial reports pinned the problems on the use of Java in the handsets. Since then, Sun Microsystems has said Java was not the issue. A Sun spokesman called the analysts' conclusions "guilt by association," and denied that Java was at the heart of any of the NTT DoCoMo recalls.
However, some industry insiders maintain that Java may be to blame in other software troubles.
The latest recall involved 420,000 phones that had been built specifically to download applications using Java. An NTT DoCoMo spokeswoman said Java, along with every other element of the phone, is being investigated as the possible cause.
Whether or not Java can be blamed for the phones' troubles, some analysts have grown wary.
Meta Group Vice President Jack Gold said consumers might do well to steer clear of phones that use Java, as the technology is still being worked out. "If I were an end user right now, I would not be buying a Java phone," he said.
The debate strikes at the heart of an industry just now beginning to wonder whether cell phones jammed with complex software may cause more problems than they solve.
Regardless of the worries, the JavaOne Conference is expected to highlight Java's entrance into the cell phone industry, not its imminent departure.
"People love this stuff," said Alan Reiter of Wireless Internet and Mobile Computing, a wireless-industry analyst firm. "Is Java ready for prime time? It's just like 2.5G (the next generation of high-speed phone networks). People are sitting in the boat as the boat is being built."