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Sun serves up Java on mobile phones

The company and its business partners have created a standard for putting its "write once, run anywhere" technology into cell phones, it announces.

After years of programming, evangelism and corporate wrangling, Sun Microsystems and its business partners have created a standard for putting Sun's Java software into cell phones, the company announced today.

As previously reported, the standard, called the mobile information device profile (MIDP), will be used in cell phones from Motorola, Nokia, LG Electronics, Nextel and NTT DoCoMo, Sun said. It will also be used in handhelds from Research in Motion, Sun said.

In addition, several telecommunications companies including SmarTone, EasTone, Telefonica and One 2 One will offer back-end services that the cell phones can tap into, the company said.

These Java-enabled services, though in the most nascent stages, indicate that the technology is finally entering the real world after years of being consigned to white papers, marketing plans and proof-of-concept demonstrations.

The services will allow cell phones to tout new information feeds or services. Tracking down the nearest Burger King over the Internet, playing games online or creating charts of daily stock performance are some of the possible applications, said Eric Chu, director of product marketing for Sun's consumer and embedded Java products.

"In Asia, entertainment is the killer service," Chu said. "Some of these devices come with games, but the problem is you get bored. By having Java technology in the device, you can now flash out any games you're bored with and download new games."

However, some are skeptical that cell phones are powerful enough to handle Java and assert that Sun's initiative is little more than marketing.

"Sun almost had to do this, it seems, to cash the check their mouths have been writing about Java (being used) everywhere," Robert Frances Group analyst Michael Dortch said.

"If you look at most of today's cell phones, trying to squeeze truly useful Java-based applets or applications or resources into that form factor seems like a solution in search of a problem."

Sun's Java software, at least theoretically, allows programs to run on a variety of computing devices without having to be rewritten for each one. Theoretically, a programmer wouldn't have to tailor a service nine times for nine different cell phone makers. After its invention in the 1990s, Java caught on first as a way to spruce up Web pages, then as a way to power e-commerce servers.

But for years, Java hasn't worked on small gadgets with limited memory and processing power. Sun has been stripping down Java while waiting for the gadgets to get bigger screens and faster chips.

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun is pushing to get Java's steaming-cup-of-coffee logo onto gadgets as well, hoping that consumers soon will associate the logo with "really cool services," company executives have said.

The Java software competes with Windows, the operating system that Microsoft is trying to shrink to fit handheld computers and augment for powerful servers. In the Microsoft vision of the future, programs will run atop Windows instead of Java. But that's a vision Microsoft has had only modest success in making a reality.

Sun hopes Java will make money chiefly by fostering new markets for powerful servers at telecommunications companies or other service providers. These are the servers from which games, stock quotes or restaurant locations will be downloaded.

But Sun also makes money from licensing its Java technology. Using the Java brand requires that a company pass Java compatibility tests to make sure it works properly.

"Not only are we making money in terms of revenue on the handset, we're also very much focused on getting business on the back end as well," Chu said.

The constraints on how fast current second-generation, or "2G," mobile phones can transfer data limits the amount of processing that can be handled on a central server, Chu said. With those bandwidth constraints, it's more feasible to send the cell phone compact information, such as a description of how to display a Web page, and to let the cell phone's processor handle the creation of the actual image, he said.

LG Telecom has been offering entertainment software over its Java-enabled system, Chu said. "They're bringing in people to write games and even silly things like wallpaper and screensavers," he said. A tough call

NTT DoCoMo plans to offer entertainment such as interactive gaming by the end of the year, he said, but it also will offer mobile commerce options.

Companies also like the Java technology because it allows them to easily display the company logo, and potentially advertisements, on cell phone screens, Chu said.

Other companies that plan to introduce MIDP-enabled devices or services include Sony, Symbian, Matsushita, Siemens and NEC, Sun said. The MIDP standard, based on Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME), was developed collaboratively by more than 20 such companies.