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Qualcomm brews tiny transactions

The company releases a new version of BREW that lets cell phone service providers broker "minitransactions" of a few nickels and dimes and small amounts of data.

Qualcomm has taken a big step into tiny transactions.

The company on Monday released a new version of BREW, or Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless, that lets cell phone service providers broker "minitransactions" that allow customers to pay a few cents for add-on features to games or small amounts of data.

The software, which is typically used to funnel downloadable ring tones, games and video mail programs to consumers, breaks "new ground," said Gina Lombardi, Qualcomm's senior vice president of marketing and product management.

By next year, Verizon Wireless and about two dozen other BREW carriers could "sell a more powerful baseball bat or a super-fast bowling ball" for mobile games, Lombardi said. "Someone could buy a new address book for their phone or a new calendar."

Minitransactions have been a part of the wired broadband world for a while, especially in Korea where people spend freely to outfit their Net avatars or buy slick new armor for role-playing games. Executives at a recent E3 game trade show said minitransactions offer companies a new business model somewhere between the current extremes of free online play and games that require monthly subscriptions.

But paying nickel-and-dime prices on cell phones presents challenges. Cell phone service providers say wireless data in general still represents just a small percentage of their overall revenue.

However, Verizon Wireless is expected to offer some signs of an upswing in wireless data later this week at Qualcomm's BREW url=" http://brew.qualcomm.com/brew/brew_2004/">developer conference.

BREW is one of several software options available to service providers. The most popular is Java 2 Micro Edition, which, according to creator Sun Microsystems, competes with BREW.