Qualcomm serves up new BREW

The company unveils the first major upgrade of its software for next-generation cell phones, adding more security for online transactions.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
2 min read
Qualcomm on Tuesday unveiled the first major upgrade of its software for next-generation cell phones, adding more security for online transactions and offering customers a way to buy pieces of the software.

The software, called BREW, or Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless, was introduced in February 2001 to compete with Sun Microsystems' Java. Both of the software applications enable wireless devices to download and run small programs for playing games and sending messages, among other features. Wireless carriers buy BREW and include it in their devices.

The new BREW, version 2.0, adds security measures based on SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) and HTTP Secure, which are both basic security measures, according to Qualcomm. Aside from adding security measures, the upgrade also expands wireless Web access, enabling wireless devices to access Web sites written in Compact HTML (CHTML), a version of HTML for cell phones, among other programming languages used by Web page makers, Qualcomm said.

Wireless carriers already offer features similar to those used in the newest version of BREW. Sprint PCS uses--and Cingular Wireless plans to soon use--Handspring's Blazer wireless browser, which has similar capabilities to BREW, a Handspring representative said. But other announced BREW upgrades, such as the ability of BREW phones to interact with images using JPEG files, will be new for wireless devices, Qualcomm said.

"Everybody will win together in this industry," Paul E. Jacobs, president of Qualcomm Wireless & Internet Group, said Tuesday at the BREW developer conference in San Diego.

Battling apathy
But all the functionality in the world won't solve one major problem, analysts say: U.S. user apathy. Qualcomm, Handspring and most other wireless industry players are trying to entice users of wireless devices to start using pricey applications like wireless Web surfing or buying goods via their cell phones.

Wireless data use has flourished in Europe, where billions of wireless messages are traded every month. In Japan, wireless picture messaging has helped Qualcomm licensee KT Freetel increase its revenues. But wireless data use is still stagnant in the United States, where the personal computer is the vehicle of choice for messages or Internet surfing.

"More Web browsing is great, but data is only low single-digit percentages of a U.S. carrier's revenues right now," said John Dryden, wireless equipment analyst at J.P. Morgan H&Q. "We're not looking at BREW 2.0 to be savior of wireless data."

On top of the industry challenges, BREW faces stiff competition from Java. Sun has claimed it dominates the market, with 20 million Java-capable handsets in circulation, versus Qualcomm, which has just one carrier using BREW.

Aside from the technical upgrades, Qualcomm said it would now be selling BREW piecemeal to the wireless carriers. Carriers don't have to buy the entire package of offerings, which a carrier can use to offer scores of new services for cell phones. Qualcomm said carriers can instead buy the ability to offer only certain of the BREW applications to users.