Java Debuts on North American Mobile Phones
Are wireless devices the next hot platform for Java? The answer may depend on what country you're standing in. In Japan, Java has done well on the NTT DoCoMo service. But here in the U.
At this writing, only one cellphone manufacturer, Motorola, has produced Java-enabled handsets for the North American market. And only one major provider, Nextel, is offering those phones as part of a wireless data service. But other cellphone manufacturers and service providers have announced they are, at the very least, testing the concept, hoping to replicate Java's Japanese success. The stakes are high. Behind the push to put Java on every handset is the desire from handset manufacturers to render existing cellphones obsolete and entice users to upgrade. Cellphone service providers are looking for a similar opportunity. In the U.
And so, the search is on for illusive killer mobile phone application---or at least a critical mass of applications that will attract consumers. "While we'd all like to believe there's a killer app, I don't think that's what we're seeing in wireless data," says Bob Ewald, director of wireless data services, Nextel Communications. "In our experience, groups of applications are what succeed. We're looking for killer application sets."
And so software developers have become an important part of the equation. The industry wants to convince developers that there's money to be made in this uncharted territory even though the actual number of living, breathing Java phone subscribers is small. If you build applications, the industry says, subscribers will come and you will prosper. To get more programmers thinking about J2ME, Motorola and Nextel staged a contest for software developers. The winner: David Fox, a 28 year old independent programmer from New York. His application enables the Motorola phone to control the air conditioning and lighting settings remotely at the home or office, as well as conduct remote surveillance of rooms through webcams via streaming video media. The second place winner was Dan Adamson of San Francisco, who built an international dictionary and spellcheck application. The third place winner created an application that allows users to input personal health information and monitor their progress.
So just what are Americans looking for in a phone-based application? Games are easy to dismiss as fluff that no-nonsense business people don't need. Yet on many an extended flight, Americans use their expensive laptops to play video games. On the other hand, one would think that stock price notification would be the perfect mobile application. But so far, wireless stock trading has been a bust, with less than one-tenth of 1% of the 261 million online trades conducted that way, according to the research firm Jupiter Media Metrix. After more than two years, the Bank of Montreal, signed up only 6000 of its 7 million customers for wireless services---and many of whom are just checking their balances and ordering new checks. The bank's head of mobile commerce told the Wall Street Journal: "Who would have thought that check-ordering would turn out to be a 'killer app' for wireless?"
J2ME on the wireless devices
Sun, too, has an interest in seeing Java succeed on mobile phones---by far the most popular wireless devices. The Java flavor being touted for mobile phones is the "micro edition": J2ME (The other two are J2SE "standard edition" and J2EE "enterprise edition.") J2ME is intended for everything from smartcards and pagers to settop boxes and, of course, mobile phones. Because these platform architectures vary, J2ME itself addresses two broad classes of machines, which Sun calls "configurations" or design centers. The first configuration includes handheld wireless devices, which are assumed to have 128K-512K memory. The second configuration includes devices that are plugged into a wall, and are assumed to have a memory size of at least 512K. Sun provides a different virtual machine for each.
But the real variability of micro devices is reflected in the J2ME "profiles," which vary from machine to machine. Profiles include one of the two virtual machines, along with a subset of classes from J2ME APIs to form a complete development environment for a specific device. There is no standard J2ME API interface.
Industry standards groups define the profiles. The most visible profile for wireless interactive services, including mobile phones, was specified by the Third Generation Partner Project (3GPP) and announced by Sun last October. It is called the Mobile Information Device (MID) profile and sets the stage for Java development in this arena. The group within 3GPP directly responsible for handset application environment is the Mobile Execution Environment Working Group, or MeXe, which is chaired by Mark Catalado of Motorola.
"GPP has adopted J2ME technology and the MID profile as the new execution platform because it is particularly suitable for supporting Java technology applications on small resource constrained devices," said Catalado, in a written statement. "With worldwide support from software application writers developing applications around the specifications, 3GPP mobile handsets will be part of the exciting new market for IP-based multimedia services which will revolutionize mobile services."
While there are other ways to provide text-based services to mobile handsets, with Java, applications are downloaded as needed, rather than fixed in firmware. New versions can be downloaded just as easily. Sun also argues that Java's "write once, run anywhere" philosophy simplifies development in a sector with far more processors and operating systems than are found on desktop systems.
Not surprisingly, Sun is bullish on J2ME's prospects, claiming "unprecedented worldwide adoption and deployment of J2ME throughout the wireless industry." Last June the company said that NTT DoCoMo, LG Telecom and Nextel have deployed the technology in more than three million J2ME-enabled wireless handsets. It cited a study by Nikkei Market Access that predicts that the annual unit-based production of Java technology-enabled cellphones will reach 20 million in Japan by the end of 2001. The first J2ME-enabled service was enabled last January in Japan by NTT DoCoMo. In June, another Japanese mobile operator, J-Phone Group, also announced Java-enabled handsets, collaborating with its principal shareholder, Vodafone in the United Kingdom. In Korea, LG Telecom has sold over 50,000 handsets supporting over 300 Java applications. Other companies considering Java deployment on handsets includes Cingular Interactive, Far EasTone, KDDI, Omnitel, One 2 One, SmarTone, Sprint PCS, and Telefonica---all with plans to deploy or trial Java technology services and devices this year. Wireless device manufacturers either shipping or planning to ship Java-integrated devices include Nokia, Motorola, Siemens, Samsung, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Fujitsu, NEC, Sony, Mitsubishi Electronic, Sharp, Psion, RIM, and Inventec.
Sun also says that more than 150,000 developers have downloaded one of the J2ME Reference Implementations, which can be used for developing applications before the physical handset is manufactured. Tools supporting J2ME include the J2ME Wireless Toolkit, Metrowerks, Code Warrior 6.
While several companies have made noise about delivering J2ME-based handsets, Motorola was the first to deliver the goods in the United States. Motorola began shipping in March and now offers three models, the i85s, 150sx, and i55sx, a "ruggedized model" with rubber casing. The phones come with two re-installed Java applications: a calculator and the Sega game Borkov. Motorola and its development partners have demonstrated other J2ME applications. For example, iAnywhere Solutions Inc., a subsidiary of Sybase Inc., will provide remote database access for road warriors. The company provides similar access for laptops, personal digital assistants and other types of mobile phones. TriTech Software Systems built a program to help police check criminal records from their phone.
Nextel Communications announced the first Java-enabled wireless phone service in the U.
Last June, Nextel and Motorola announced the availability of Secure Hypertext Transfer Protocol, which provides secure connections between the handset and the Net; Over-The-Air Download Application (OAD), providing wireless application distribution via a forthcoming application distribution web site; and serial port connectivity for communicating with PCs, bar code scanner, and other tethered devices. Nextel also offers a portable keyboard, manufactured by Think Outside.
At last June's JavaOne Developer Conference in San Francisco, Pekka Ala-Pietila, president of Nokia, said that the company planned to deliver more than 50 million mobile terminals supporting the Java platform by the end of 2002, and double that number by the end of 2003. The company also introduced a development tool: Jbuilder MobilSet, jointly developed by Nokia and Borland. Ala-Pietila called the move "an unprecedented opportunity for developers." To make the case, he pointed out that in Finland, the revenue from downloading individual ring tones was greater than "all the revenue of the two Finnish television stations combined."
One technology that may help Java become a staple on handsets are Java accelerator chips. "I used to not believe in Java because of the performance issues, but now I see it coming. It's just a matter of time," said MicroDesign Resources analyst Markus Levy, in a CNET news.
As with any new technology, adoption takes time. Giga Information Group's Carl Zetie notes that Java adoption is gathering momentum but predicts that "it will be early 2002 at the earliest before J2ME implementations are credible beyond low-end phones and possibly 2003 before there will be widespread replacement of native applications on existing devices." He says that one problem confronting J2ME developers is the need to target three or more different profiles, with their differing APIs. "Hence, Java on mobile devices is much less appealing as a universal solution than Java on the server," he says. "Still, that's an improvement over facing a unique API for each device, and widespread adoption will come with time."
Zetie also noted the Java-related glitches that forced Sony and Panasonic to recall handsets. "Java is still very immature on small devices, leading to problems unique to each device type. DoCoMo has compounded its own problems here by choosing to implement a unique profile, rather than one of the common standardized profiles." He notes that the advent of common profiles, including the MID Profile, will help by having "multiple implementers knock out the bugs. We shouldn't rush to judge J2ME by the quality of the earliest products."
An Interview with Bob Ewald,
director of wireless data services, Nextel Communications
Of the North American mobile phone service providers, Nextel has been most associated with wireless data. The company introduced Motorola's iDEN technology in 1996, which combines enhanced digital cellular, two-way radio and text/
Bob Ewald, Nextel's director of wireless data services, oversees the company's WAP and Java environments, as well as the deployment of "network enablers," such as the ability to locate the handset and understanding its state of operation.
So far, we've seen Java-enabled business calculators, games, and data retrieval applications. How will this come together in the North American market?
J2ME services have become more meaningful with the capability of "network-aware" applications, which we announced on October 1st. Network-aware applications are not just local, like a calculator, but access the network. Unlike a number of our competitors, we have a nationwide mobile IP-based packet data network. So wherever you are on the Nextel network, your data services are exactly the same. We think the combination of network-aware applications and the packet network will accelerate the development of J2ME applications for both entertainment and business.
What kind of applications do you anticipate?
We see two application types. We see generic vertical applications that apply to a broad number of customers in a vertical segment. In the transportation segment, for example, it's not too hard to envision a delivery-acknowledgment and next-delivery application, which would display on a handset.
The other type I think we'll see are enterprise solutions. Because Java is familiar to the enterprise user, the enterprise market will develop their own applications. The opportunity is for the handset to become much like today's desktop, which is controllable by the enterprise for distributing application and tools for the worker to use.
The phone has some advantages and disadvantages as a device for data distribution.
I wouldn't disagree that key entry is difficult on the handset. We've responded by offering the iBoard---a Motorola product that's sold to Nextel customers-which allows you to cradle the handset and use a keyboard. One of the benefits of Java, as compared to a WAP environment, is the ability to offer a graphical user interface that should help minimize the amont of information you key into the handset.
From your standpoint, how does WAP and this technology intermingle, if at all. Do you see one replacing the other, or are they complementary?
Let me talk about the major differences that we see. The first is the graphical user interface, where you have the ability to access drop-down menus and data entry fields specific to either text or numeric. That significantly improves the user experience in terms of data entry. In addition, Java is not tied to a server. The application resident on the handset will work whether you're in or out of coverage. If you had a work order Java application and had to go into a basement facility where coverage was not available, you could still access the data from that work order and indicate the job was complete. When you re-encounter the network outside the building, that information could then be uploaded. In the WAP environment today, you are tied to the server for your next deck of cards. That's a significant differential.
We have also introduced the ability to do an SSL [secure sockets layer] connection from the handset to a backend server, offering the first end-to-end secure connection.
Does all this mean that Java will eventually supplant WAP?
Those three things are critical differentiators between WAP and Java. Will Java supplant WAP? I think the answer is no. For quite some time we will have two environments in the handsets. I also believe that there will always be a need to browse Internet-type data, and that's what WAP is.
How the U.
S. market for J2ME services differ from the market in Japan?
One big difference is that a significant portion of our phones are used by business customers and their employees, whereas DoCoMo is a more personal service, where entertainment-type applications are more popular. We at Nextel need to focus on providing users with productivity enhancement tools and on the enterprise applications, because we have such so many Fortune 1000 users among our customers. Nextel has the highest penetration of data subscribers in its customer base, even compared to Verizon and Sprint, who have significantly more subscribers than we do.