AT&T: Hold the Java

AT&T-branded phones will shift away from using Java over the next several years, and might start using an open-source version of Symbian.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
3 min read
AT&T's Roger Smith implied a limited future for Java-based phones at the largest carrier in the U.S. Tom Krazit/CNET News

SAN FRANCISCO--AT&T is planning for a future with just one or two mobile operating systems running on its products, and that may imply a limited future for Java phones at the carrier.

Roger Smith, director of next-generation services at AT&T, implied that Symbian might become the operating system of the future for the phones that AT&T offers subscribers under its own brand. During a talk at the Symbian Partner Event here, Smith promised "dramatic consolidation from AT&T in terms of the mobile platforms and tool chains that we support," and that appears to signal a limited future with AT&T for Java.

"Java has not been a success," Smith said. "It's not because Java is bad, but we didn't manage it effectively." Smith was referring to the much-maligned "fragmentation" problems in the mobile world; in this industry, that word carries the same stench that "proprietary" used to have in enterprise computing.

Solving the fragmentation problem is a key motivation behind the interest in operating systems like Google's Android and the LiMo Foundation's software. Carriers like AT&T want an operating system that they can put their own stamp on, with their own brand, their own applications, and their own unique experience, but they also need support from third-party developers because they simply can't develop everything.

Software platforms like Java and Qualcomm's BREW were supposed to give third-party developers a common platform to write to across different phones and carriers, but in practice, carriers and handset makers essentially "fragmented" those platforms into their own little walled gardens with different user interfaces and requirements. That meant third-party developers had to pick a carrier or phone on which to create their magic and basically start over if they wanted to put that application on another phone; an unattractive proposition.

And as mobile phones have started to become more and more like mobile computers, the software on those phones needs to become more and more sophisticated to run intriguing applications, Smith said. Java doesn't reach down far enough into the lower levels of the phone to exploit hardware in the manner that full-fledged operating systems do, he said.

Enter Symbian. Nokia is attempting to get in on demand for mobile operating systems by acquiring the Symbian operating system and releasing it as a free open-source project managed by an industry consortium called the Symbian Foundation at some point next year. Despite flirting with Android all year, AT&T was a founding member of the Symbian Foundation and is eying that operating system as a candidate for the basic phones that AT&T offers under its own brand.

"We want to standardize our platforms on a platform like Symbian that is mature and effective," Smith said. Obviously, AT&T will continue to offer third-party phones like Apple's iPhone and Research in Motion's BlackBerry, but it has lots of customers who aren't looking for the type of high-end experience offered by those products, yet still want a basic Internet-capable phone, he said.