Nextel, Motorola and Sun Microsystems on Monday began selling two phones that allow people to download software to add new features, such as mobile e-mail and instant messaging, directly into the phones.
Cellular phones may be wireless, but they are generally tethered to the software the manufacturer puts into them on the assembly lines. For the most part, people have to buy a new phone to get the latest software and features.
The concept is relatively new in the United States, though overseas wireless users have been able to download software and ring-tone sounds for some time.
In Korea, cell phone users have been able to download complex software onto their phones for about a year. In Japan, starting in January, carrier NTT DoCoMo began offering a similar service to its customers. So far, 20 million handsets that come with this capability have been sold, the company said.
The phone makers have also started to see this trend and act upon it. Phone maker Nokia, German industrial giant Siemens--which is entering the U.S. market this month--and Symbian, an operating system co-owned by many of the major communications players, have adopted a similar strategy for their handsets.
And American carriers are starting to take notice. Cingular Wireless announced that by May, it will demonstrate a similar service on its network. Sprint PCS is involved in testing the same kind of cell phone. The makers of the Research In Motion BlackBerry pager, and even Palm, are talking about making their devices Java enabled.
Qualcomm also has jumped into the fray. It has created a telephone operating system called BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), which will allow people to download software onto their phones.
"This dramatically changes the cell phone--forever," Motorola CEO Christopher Galvin said Monday, when introducing the two new phones for the U.S. market.
These phones are all using Java software, which allows software to run on any device without having to be rewritten as long as the proper Java client software is installed on the device. Though the software itself has been hailed, detractors point out a downside: While there are an estimated 2.1 million Java developers, few applications are ready for wireless devices.
Sun Microsystems' Scott McNealy said Monday that there has been "a groundswell" of work by the 11,000 Java developers now working on wireless programming.
"We expect a major rollout of new services later this year" at the annual Java developers' conference, McNealy said. He named a few of the services in the works, such as mobile e-mail and instant messaging.
But what's available now is pretty slim. The phones released Monday come with just three extra pieces added: a Sega game and a number of different types of calculators with just a single function each.
While the Sun-Nextel phones are targeting business users, with applications like mobile e-messaging in the works, NTT DoCoMo is betting that consumers will be interested in playing games. Most of what is available on that network are games such as the early personal computer staple Tetris.
Entertainment makes up a big chunk of DoCoMo's revenues, the company says.
Callie Nelson, an analyst at IDC, said she remains skeptical of the Monday announcement.
"I'd like to see them really go into what (the new phones) do," Nelson said.
She also said that companies have to find a better way to bill customers for the downloads. Nextel will likely charge about $10 for the programs or use some other subscription model. NTT DoCoMo charges for the amount of data a phone receives.
In a recent report, industry analysts at Meta Group said that Java in cell phones and downloadable software "will not become an important force in mobile devices."
"Today's personal digital assistants lack the processing power and memory requirements to handle Java's large overhead," the analysts said. "Even if someone built a cell phone with a 200MHz processor, cellular phones do not have the bandwidth to download huge Java applets."