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Sun redials Java for cell phones

The company, along with Java backers, is preparing a new release of its software for cell phones that it hopes will prevent a splintering of the market and stave off rivals such as Microsoft.

Sun Microsystems and its allies are preparing a new release of Java software for cell phones that they hope will prevent a splintering of the Java market and stave off rivals such as Microsoft.

The new version of Java for mobile devices, now being reviewed by Java supporters, is expected to be approved in the coming weeks. It includes a standardized way to download Java programs, better sound and networking, and a more sophisticated user interface.

Those new features are important not only because they'll expand the types of programs that can run on cell phones, but because they may help prevent cell phone makers from creating their own ways of handling that work, which could undermine Java's appeal.

Keeping Java allies in the fold is a central issue for Sun, the creator of Java. The company wants to accommodate individual companies' needs to extend Java while avoiding a future in which Java fragments into different, incompatible versions.

Java is software that lets programs run on different computing devices--for example, letting a chat program work on mobile phones from Siemens, Motorola or Nokia--regardless of the processors used in the system. Java works on servers and desktop computers, but much Java activity centers on the version for cell phones, called the Mobile Information Device Platform (MIDP).

The first version of MIDP "left some areas open that handset manufacturers were exploiting with proprietary...programming interfaces," said Onno Kluyt, manager of Sun's Java Community Process Program Office. Kluyt asserts that with the new version of MIDP, the desire among cell phone makers to build proprietary extensions is waning. "The industry came back," he said.

Whether that's true remains to be seen. Sun's Java has the edge right now in the cell phone market, with millions of Java-equipped phones already in consumers' hands. But Microsoft is breathing down Sun's neck, and any dissent in the Java ranks could ultimately create Microsoft converts.

Java faces competition from Microsoft's Smartphone 2002 operating system and Pocket PC Phone Edition, as well as from Qualcomm's Binary Runtime for Wireless (BREW) initiative.

Microsoft has yet to find the right formula for controlling the cell phone market. But the software giant is working on a more capable version of its mobile software, as part of its far-reaching .Net initiative.

IDC analyst Keith Waryas said that Microsoft often comes out with a first-generation product that's "sub par" and a second-generation one that's "pretty good." But "when they hit the third time, they crush everybody."

The outcome of the struggle will determine who profits from the billions of dollars expected to be spent on cell phone software for checking customer orders, viewing maps, playing games or sending messages to friends.

Room for competition
Through partnerships with companies such as Motorola, Vodafone and Nokia, Sun has succeeded in spreading Java to an area where its longtime rival, Microsoft, is comparatively weak. Sun's revenue comes chiefly from selling large server computers, not from its software arm. But the company does derive millions of dollars from licensing Java and from related development tools and software.

There is still plenty of room for competition--and consumer choice--because the market is young. Comparatively few people use their cell phones yet for much more than talking, particularly in the United States.

Currently, just slightly more than 1 percent of the $73.5 billion in revenue that cell phone carriers collect in the United States comes from transferring data, Waryas said. However, IDC projects the figure will rise to about 17 percent to 20 percent of a $135 billion market in 2006.

Technologies such as Java or BREW are "absolutely essential" for cell phone service companies looking for a way to tap other revenue sources besides regular phone calls, Waryas said. And Java has a "major lead" in the cell phone market, he noted.

Since its introduction in September 2000, MIDP has swept across the cell phone landscape. Nokia, the largest maker of cell phones, expects to sell about 10 million cell phones this year that can run Java programs.

MIDP has become a fertile garden for other Java developments as well. For example, there are projects under way to extend MIDP with 3D graphics, better audio and video and the ability to tap into information about the location of the cell phone customer.

Companies such as Nokia like the Java realm because companies can participate in its development, Waryas said. In the PC world, many companies are relegated to the role of mere assembler while Intel and Microsoft reap many of the profits.

Companies "want to take an active role. They don't want to become a whitebox manufacturer," Waryas said, referring to generic PCs with standard parts and no brand name.

Splintering possible
But not everything has been rosy among Java developers. In-Fusio, which makes games for cell phones, participates in the development of the new MIDP release but saw its proposal for a MIDP Java game standard rejected in a vote by the Java community members.

That rejection raises the possibility that companies will continue to use proprietary extensions to Java, not technology developed through the Java Community Process (JCP), through which Sun and others govern the future of Java. That may split what could be a unified effort, said In-Fusio Chief Technology Officer Thomas Lanspurg.

"Currently, there is no specific work done inside the JCP to solve this issue. And this may generate in the future a result where people (like us) have to find a solution by themselves outside standards and generate more fragmentation," he said in an e-mail interview.

"Fragmentation" is a loaded word in the computer industry, bringing to mind the ultimately unsuccessful attempts to unify the world surrounding the Unix operating system, which led to a divided Unix market and customer confusion. And it's a particularly sensitive concept for Java, which Sun emblazoned with the "write once, run anywhere" mantra promising universality.

Sun and Java have faced this challenge before, as with server versions of Java from BEA Systems and others that include extensions that can prevent a program from running on a competitor's version of Java. In response, Sun is creating an Application Verification Kit that ensures a Java program can run in different companies' Java environments.

Microsoft, naturally, seizes on the fragmentation issue and argues that it is Sun's fault. Sun tried to create a Java version for devices with little processor power and memory, but the customers who will be interested in the services Java can provide will also be the ones who buy fancier cell phones or other wireless gadgets with much more processing power.

Cell phone manufacturers responded to Sun's "lowest common denominator" approach by adding proprietary extensions for jobs outside Java's domain, such as initiating phone calls, said David Rasmussen, lead product manager for Microsoft's .Net Mobile Platform, a software product expected by the end of this year for running complex programs on small devices.

"The .Net framework...has a powerful enough base to work with that you can develop interesting applications and avoid this fragmentation," Rasmussen said. "We think it's short-sighted to bet on a low-level capability when the devices are going to get up to a reasonable level of capability very quickly."

Talk like that has analysts wondering how long Java will maintain its lead in the cell phone market. "Microsoft is the big sleeping giant in the industry," Waryas said. "I wouldn't say they're late because the market hasn't developed yet."