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Is Qualcomm's BREW flat?

Sun Microsystems is claiming victory over what was supposed to be a serious challenge from Qualcomm to dominate the market for cell phone software that can deliver advanced services.

Sun Microsystems is claiming victory over what was supposed to be a serious challenge from Qualcomm to dominate the market for cell phone software that can deliver advanced services.

Qualcomm introduced BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) in February 2001 to compete with Sun's Java. Cell phones with either software can download and run small programs for playing games or sending messages.

But BREW hasn't won many converts compared with the slimmed-down version of Java that debuted in cell phones from Nextel Communications almost a year ago.

Korean carrier KT Freetel and KDDI in Japan use BREW in their phones and wireless networks, and Verizon Wireless intends to launch a service in the United States in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, there are 20 million Java-capable handsets in circulation, and many carriers have committed to using the technology, including NTT DoCoMo in Japan and Sprint PCS.

BREW also is behind in the race for developers to write revenue-enhancing applications. Evans Data estimates there are 500 BREW developers, many of whom are attending this week's BREW Developer Conference in San Diego. That's compared with the 200,000 developers Sun claims to have working on a version of Java for cell phones called Java2 MicroEdition.

While the competition is far from over and both technologies are finding a home, some analysts are declaring a winner.

"Java will eventually win out," said Michael King, a senior wireless application analyst at Gartner Dataquest.

Sun points to its alliances as the best evidence of which technology is leading the market.

"Talk to Nokia, Siemens...they all have picked Java around the world," said Eric Chu, group manager industry marketing at Sun Microsystems. "Qualcomm's entry into this space only validates what we've known for years--there is a business in building a wireless platform. Our approach has been to build a standard; Qualcomm built a product."

Qualcomm Senior Vice President of Development Mark Epstein dismisses any notion of a battle between Java and BREW. Instead, he says, "BREW and Java can work together for carriers."

With competition driving down the profit margins on the price of cellular calls, the carriers see wireless e-mail or similar services as a new source of revenue. For example, a high-speed Internet service such as Friend Finder, which can locate a person by zeroing in on their cell phone's location, will help earn back some of the cost in constructing networks to expand the number of cell phone calls at any one time.

Pouring a BREW
BREW was supposed to have a big advantage over Java: It was a one-stop shop for carriers using CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) to get all of the necessary things to launch a service quickly and easily.

Qualcomm has licensed content from the likes of the World Wrestling Federation and game maker Sega. Carriers would only have to sell handsets with BREW inside and pick from a catalog of content and launch a service.

With Java, which works on any phone network, a carrier would still have to go elsewhere to get an application written and would have to host the application themselves.

"(Java) was all over the place," said Gartner Dataquest's King.

But Qualcomm has still had to acknowledge Java's domination. Last year Qualcomm announced that it had chosen IBM to provide Java for its BREW platform. The idea was to "bolt Java onto BREW," Qualcomm said, so carriers could offer both BREW and Java applications, increasing revenues for everyone involved.

The large number of Java applications already available for cell phone users made it an easy move.

"We're not surprised at Verizon's decision to also do Java in addition to the BREW efforts," Sun's Chu said.

A temporary technology?
A key decider for BREW's fate is the quality and popularity of the applications. But some developers who make the applications are hesitating, saying there are two main problems with BREW.

One, King said, is developers overcoming concerns about how they are paid. Qualcomm announced a new release of its billing system on Monday.

"Once application makers know they can get paid, they'll get serious about it," King said. "But if they can't get paid for it, they'll say 'I'm going surfing.'"

For KT Freetel, BREW has been used for about 3 million applications being downloaded, at a cost of about $4 a game. Of that $4, the application maker gets 80 percent, Qualcomm gets 10 percent and the carrier gets 10 percent.

Another drawback is the impression that Qualcomm's BREW is only a temporary technology, having been created to jump-start carriers' data efforts, with little thought beyond that. Eventually, all of BREW's functions will be performed in-house by carriers, King said.

"I give it two to five years before it's replaced," King said.

But despite the seemingly uphill climb for BREW, Qualcomm's Epstein takes solace in recent comments from Chuck Levine, president of Sprint's wireless division, also known as Sprint PCS.

Epstein said he heard Levine say he "liked" the BREW business model, even if he wasn't going to use it.

"That's a start," he said.