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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Mobile Java being open-sourced - just in the nick of time

According to a few things I've read it appears that Sun is pushing Java ME (formerly J2ME) towards being Open Source.

If so, this is extremely important in terms of handset software going forward. Most mid-to-high end GSM phones feature a Java Virtual Machine, typically used for games, and a few additional applications like dynamic UIs. Generally, Java has been a "limited success" - generating revenues & establishing an ecosystem, but without much success in extending beyond a confined games-oriented domain. At one point in time, various companies were talking up full Java-based operating systems (Coincidence: I got a PR email from SavaJe as I wrote this post), but these have not really got any traction.

An extremely sore point among handset manufacturers has been the need to pay a royalty to Sun of (historically around $0.50-1.00 per phone, I believe), on top of the cost of the JVM itself. While this doesn't seem like much, it is a significant fraction of a phone's total "bill of materials" and hence a major impact on the price and achievable margin on the device. In addition, the fragmentation of the way in which J2ME is actually implemented on phones has landed developers, operators, and device vendors with myriad headaches in porting software across a whole range of handsets. Companies like Tira Wireless have closed the gap with specialised porting tools, but it's still been a bone of contention.

Java's future on the handset as the "3rd party software platform of choice" has therefore been threatened - while it still has a huge developer base, it has been faced mounting competition from other software platforms that can support games, and often much more. Obviously, native Symbian, Windows and Palm applications are alternatives on smartphones, with shipments growing and OS licence fees falling. Linux has also been making a strong push recently, especially with the introduction of a secure "application sandbox" in implementations from TrollTech, although the number of mobile Linux developers remain quite small, especially for games. It's also increasingly possible to run software applications like games inside a handset's browser (eg using JavaScript/XML like OpenWave's MIDAS) or in an abstracted "user experience" layer like Adobe/Macromedia Flash Lite, or solutions from SurfKitchen & its peers.

This move may particularly benefit Motorola, which has been focused on hybrid Java/Linux software platforms for some time. This article quotes a senior Moto exec gushing enthusiastically about the move. I think it's a negative for TrollTech, which is aggressively trying to evangelise the "pure Linux" approach to phones & sway developers away from other platforms.

Overall, I think this move has the potential to entrench Java more firmly in future handsets at a time when its future was looking shaky - especially as this is a critical time as the industry moves towards more sophisticated handset platforms employing IP/IMS connectivity, multi-tasking and web-type functions.

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