Sun's Java rules shape future of phones

Sun Microsystems unveils its first-ever guidelines for the use of Java in cell phones, an effort to bring order to how the programming language is evolving for wireless.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
3 min read
Sun Microsystems released its first-ever guidelines for the use of Java in cell phones, an effort to shape up the chaotic way in which the programming language has been developed thus far for application in the world of wireless.

With its Java Technology for the Wireless Industry "road map," released Thursday, Sun and its allies began exercising a little more control over Java, which carriers use to sell downloadable games, ring tones or business applications.

Until now, the programming language's evolution in cell phones has been left to the industry, which settled on the basic pieces during a two-year-long free-for-all of development. Sun's JTWI establishes what the company thinks should be the basic elements of Java for cell phones and lays out what additions will appear on its list during the next 12 months.

"What we are trying to do is present a better vision of what kinds (of applications) will be available in a majority of phones, and when," said Nicolas Lorain, a senior product manager at Sun.

Although voluntary, the initiative will likely dictate the future of cell phones. JTWI already has the backing of Ericsson, Nokia and Motorola, which make 60 percent of the world's cell phones. Also signing on are major carriers including NTT DoCoMo of Japan, Vodafone and Orange in the United Kingdom, and U.S. carriers Sprint PCS and T-Mobile, Lorain said.

Indeed, the industry seems pleased with the effort to bring some law and order to the wireless frontier, said Yankee Group wireless technology analyst John Jackson.

"The way Java was developing was a disservice to the technology," Jackson said of the hands-off approach Sun had exercised till now. "Things were just moving too fast in the wireless world."

The first test of JTWI's teeth comes in February, the date set by the guidelines for manufacturers to begin adding a user interface licensed by PalmSource to Java phones, said Lorain. By 2004, Lorain said, Java phones will get a total of nine new functions, including instant messaging and the ability to tap into credit card or bank accounts. He expects that the first phones to follow the new guidelines will debut by year's end.

To follow the entire road map, manufacturers will also have to license software from Motorola, Nokia, Sun and Tira Wireless.

Raising the ramparts
Sun's move also bolsters Java against challenges from Qualcomm and Microsoft, which make software that, like Java, lets phones download software.

Sun's Java is by far the market leader, having had a year's head start over competitors. But Qualcomm is starting to gain some ground with its Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (BREW) software, having recently signed up a sixth carrier to launch a download service using the technology. Microsoft, even later to the market than Qualcomm, lurks in the background.

The three are battling to win dominance of a market just beginning to show some promise in the United States and elsewhere. Nearly every U.S. carrier has begun selling downloads, as they desperately seek new revenue sources to help dig themselves out of a two-year earnings dive. Verizon's Get It Now, which uses BREW, and Sprint's PCS Vision are two such services.

Most of the download profits are from ring tones--song snippets that replace a phone's prepackaged ring. Artists received a record amount of royalties, $71 million, last year from the sale of ring tones based on their songs.