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Java in phones picking up steam in Asia

Sun's telecom partners in Asia are planning deeper use of Java software in mobile phones. The phones' appeal may still be narrow, though, because of a limited number of applications.

Sun Microsystems' telecommunications partners in Asia will announce deeper use of Sun's Java software in mobile phones and back-end networks next week at the first JavaOne conference in Japan, a Sun executive said.

NEC, Fujitsu and J-Phone Communications, as well as Sun's longtime Java partner NTT DoCoMo, will announce expanded use of Java in their telecommunications networks, said Rich Green, general manager of Sun's Java software group.

Java made initial progress in mobile phones and in servers, but now companies are expanding to take advantage of the technology's network-communication abilities to link different computing devices, Green said.

"What you'll see in the next year is we're going to connect all the dots," he said. "The next wave is the connection of the last waves."

Java lets a program run on numerous devices without the program having to be rewritten for each one through the use of a "virtual machine"; a virtual machine translates Java programs into instructions a particular computer can understand.

For example, a shopping-cart e-commerce Java program could run on an IBM mainframe, a Compaq Windows server or a Hewlett-Packard Unix server. Or an online gambling program could run on mobile phones from Motorola, NTT DoCoMo and Nokia.

Sun has been working to spread Java as widely as possible, and the company has made significant progress even if it has failed in its initial hope to diminish the importance of Windows on desktop PCs. Though Java is common on desktops, it is not used for core programs the way Windows is, and Microsoft stopped shipping Java along with Windows with its newest release, XP.

In cell phones, though, Java has a lead over Microsoft, with the six largest cell phone makers committing to incorporate Java.

No. 1 mobile phone maker Nokia has predicted it will ship 50 million Java-enabled mobile phones by the end of 2002 and 100 million by 2003. The Finnish company wooed its biggest competitors to join a mobile phone standards plan that will put Java, among other features, in next-generation phones.

By comparison, Microsoft's mobile phone effort, called Stinger and based on its Windows CE operating system, has much farther to go. Stinger, not even expected until 2002, already is losing the operating systems wars because application writers are choosing to work with phones already on the market, industry analysts say.

That doesn't mean Java is perfect. Perhaps the biggest weakness in mobile phones thus far is the limited availability of applications, a problem Sun promises to fix as more sophisticated phones and software arrive.

The first-generation Java phones from Motorola and Nextel--the first Java phones to ship in the United States--included programs for calculating stairway geometry or restaurant tips. Second versions added the ability to download new programs wirelessly, including a loan calculator and notepad, but still were thin on compelling programs.

"I agree the Nextel folks deployed some toy applications to make sure this thing worked," Green said. "I don't think they wanted to tie the core of their network up on Java until they knew it was working."

Coming applications will be better, he promised--especially in Europe and Asia, where cell phones are far more powerful than in the United States. In Japan, by comparison, J-Phone sells a cell phone with a 4-inch color screen and 3D graphics for about $140.

"We're living in the dark ages out here," Green said.

In Asia, entertainment such as games and streaming media will be the vehicle for Java use, Green said. In Europe, sending messages will be the most compelling role. In North America, Sun is banking on business uses such as retrieving information from databases or some types of communication.

Java programs in cell phones could speed up considerably next year with the arrival of several dedicated chips that run Java instructions.

Sun has treated Java as an expense that could lead to profits in other areas. For example, it could convince programmers that they should ally themselves with Sun to be in the programming vanguard, or it could lead to a world where networked computers and services are more common. But with the widespread shipment of Java on millions of cell phones, royalty revenue from Java has begun to factor as well, Green said.

"It's actually a very interesting revenue stream," he said, though he refused to say how much Sun garners from it.

Sun split off a separate version called Java 2 Micro Edition for mobile phones, cars, set-top boxes and other smaller computing devices. J2ME is further subdivided into different profiles, the one for cell phones called "mobile information device platform," or MIDP.

Java cell phones sport the Java logo while starting and running the software, and the Nextel phone even displays a splash screen that says the phone is MIDP compatible.

The first big Java phone partner, NTT DoCoMo in Japan, has shipped about 9 million Java-enabled phones, but it isn't yet MIDP compatible because it opted for Java before the MIDP was final.

NTT "is on a path to converge onto MIDP," Green said.

Staff writer Ben Charny contributed to this report.