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New cell-phone Java holds promise

Sun allies complete a second version of Java software for cell phones that they hope will fill gaps left by the first, but many see challenges in moving to the new technology.

Allies of Sun Microsystems have completed a second version of Java software for cell phones that they hope will fill some of the gaps left by the first, but many expect challenges moving to the new technology.

Learn more about Java in cell phones.
Announced earlier this month, the new Java holds the promise of simpler cell phone programming, richer games, more money for cell phone service providers and software that connects to Internet services.

But some experts predict that memory requirements and cost will likely hamper adoption of the software, known as Mobile Information Device Platform (MIDP) 2.0.

Gadget designers say the newer Java will require about 100K more memory than the previous version, a sizable jump for cell phones. That's enough to prevent some current handsets from being upgraded and to deter manufacturers from including MIDP 2.0 on some models, according to some experts.

"My main issue is trying to squeeze it (the new MIDP) into last year's shoebox," said David Yach, Research In Motion software vice president.

The cell phone market has been a bright spot for Java, a Sun-inspired initiative aimed at fostering alternatives to Microsoft by creating interoperable software standards for the PC and beyond. The software was designed to let a single program run on any device of a certain class, regardless of underlying details such as its operating system or processor.

Sun hasn't had much success using Java to undermine Microsoft's desktop dominance, but it has caught on in areas where Microsoft is comparatively weak. Java is widely used on servers and now has shipped on millions of mobile phones.

Java got its head start on cell phones with the release of MIDP 1.0 nearly three years ago, spreading to dozens of devices.

The Zelos Group predicts Java will run on 450 million handsets by 2007, or three-quarters of those that ship that year. And competing software such as a specialized version of Microsoft Windows and Qualcomm's BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) so far aren't contenders.

"Java has tremendous momentum. The competition is a little weak," said Chris Lanfear, an analyst with Venture Development. BREW is technologically sound but not often used, while "Microsoft right now is on the outside looking in."

Motorola leads the group developing MIDP. Among the dozens of partners in the group are Sun, mobile phone manufacturers, phone software companies and cell phone service providers.

The wider use of Java has spurred numerous programmers to release MIDP software. While much of what's available is basic games such as "Minesweeper" or "Tetris," others have written more serious software for finding traffic jams or for reading car engine diagnostic information.

Java backers now hope to exploit their lead in cell phones with a more robust version of the software for new handsets that are expected to pack more punch than current models. While MIDP 2.0 has bigger hardware needs than the current version, handset makers and carriers expect consumers to gravitate to the new devices as prices fall and new services that take advantage of them come online in the coming months.

A Sun representative said that the company expects rapid adoption of MIDP 2.0 by all of the major cell phone makers, including Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Sony-Ericsson and Samsung.

"We expect the same 30 to 50 handset manufacturers to be releasing MIDP 2 handsets over the next six to nine months," said Nicolis Lorain, senior manager of Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME) products for Sun. "We expect the first commercially available devices supporting MIDP 2 to be available in the summer of 2003."

The promise
MIDP 2.0 offers a number of enhancements over the older version of Java cell phone software. For games, for instance, it comes with sound features and a standard way to handle graphics layers such as foreground characters and background scenery.

"The user interface in MIDP 2.0 gives application developers more control over the look and feel of their applications," Lorain said.

It mandates a standard method for downloading programs over cell phone networks. That's likely to be a boon to software and wireless companies that want to make money selling cell phone programs.

Data is handled more gracefully. MIDP in general lets data be stored on the cell phone where some competing technologies rely on fetching it from the network, said Eileen Mercilliott, senior manager of Nextel's J2ME products and developer program. Nextel, which will begin shipping its first MIDP 2.0 phones in October 2003, also likes Record Management System (RMS), a database of information such as contact names and phone numbers that can be shared by many programs on the phone.

Another part of MIDP's promise is the replacement of a profusion of unique devices with a more standard infrastructure for programs. For phone software companies, that means a larger market, and for cell phone companies, it means less development effort.

MIDP 2.0 is also expected to offer a big leap in support for Internet data services compared with the current version of the software, tantalizing some with visions of new billing opportunities.

Java already offers support for Web access on cell phones, but surfing hasn't taken off due to relatively slow connection speeds and cramped screens that make it hard to display Web pages designed for PCs.

MIDP 2.0 is designed to address some of those shortcomings as cell phone makers prepare new, higher-powered models.

A new place for push?
One of the most significant features in the new Java version, expected to begin arriving in new phones in the second half of 2003, is the incorporation of "push" technology for business customers that send data to employees on the road.

With this technology, a customer filling out a trouble ticket on the Internet could prompt a server to "push" the customer's address and problem description to a technician's cell phone. Receiving that information could trigger the phone to launch a program that downloads driving directions. And afterward, the technician could use the phone to update the server about whether the problem had been solved.

Companies such as Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless are now pushing news and sports scores to their customers to encourage more surfing by mobile phone.

MIDP 2.0 gives push more abilities such as responding to messages or using the messages to send and receive applications over the air, said Sanjay Gupta, Motorola senior manager of global standards for the mobile networking team.

Today's push experience is primitive by comparison. E-mail lands in a cell phone's in-box and can be read, but very few services go beyond that.

"What you end up doing today is instigating the user," Gupta said. "It's more like a little pin prick to somebody to go do something now. The user experience now leaves a lot to be desired."

The pitfalls
For all of the improvements touted by MIDP 2.0's backers, some manufacturers have expressed concerns about the relatively heavy memory needs of the new version, which requires 100K more memory than its predecessor.

For handsets with several megabytes of memory, such as Motorola?s $400 i95cl model, the upgrade is feasible. But manufacturers will have trouble fitting the new version of MIDP 2.0 into lower-end phones without much memory to spare, according to Yach.

RIM currently uses MIDP 1.0 in its Blackberry handset.

The extra 100K of required memory may also make it impossible to upgrade some Java-enabled handsets already on the market, Yach said. These phones simply don't have enough room and, unlike with personal computers, most cell phones can't be upgraded with more memory.

Bill Nguyen, founder of wireless messaging company Seven, says that MIDP 2.0 will be used predominantly for "heavy" business applications, so his company will work on applications along those lines. Seven's wireless messaging is offered by Sprint PCS, Cingular Wireless and U.K-based Mmo2.

Not everyone believes the additional memory requirements will be a major problem.

"I don't know what our MIDP 2.0 product roadmap looks like right now," said Victor Brilon, Java applications manager at cell phone giant Nokia. "But we're definitely not talking about excluding it from some low-end phones."

Siemens spokesman Jacob Rice said the handset maker is already building more memory into most of its cell phones for new features such as complex ring tones or messages with attached files. There's likely enough cushion to fit a fatter MIDP 2.0.

"This isn't a major concern," Rice said.

Nextel's Mercilliott agreed, arguing that MIDP 2.0's memory penalty is worth enduring.

"We are increasingly moving toward phones that have more memory," she said. "Our customers that are looking for the more sophisticated capabilities are going to be willing to invest in the new devices."

Whether that implies high-end MIDP 2.0 business applications are around the corner, or something else, remains to be seen.

"It looks to me like they built a game platform," Venture Development's Lanfear said of the new Java. "That appears to be where the money is coming from."