J2ME: Mobile Java

The battle for wireless software standards will reach a decisive stage this year. Among the key players in the battle are Microsoft and the ubiquitous Java programming language from Sun Microsystems. Attempts by Microsoft to extend its dominance on the PC platform to the wireless internet with its Stinger platform for smartphones are being hampered by the growing popularity of Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). The mobile version of Java 2.0 is playing a key role in the development of next generation of mobile phones from major wireless players like Nokia and Japan’s NTT Docomo.

The success of J2ME on the mobile market is a strategic dilemna for Microsoft. Its Stinger platform is an important part of its .Net initiative. Rick Ross, President of the Java-lobby, refers to the battle between Java and .Net as “the most important competition in the history of technology.” This may be overstating the case, but it is clear that the growing popularity of J2ME is causing concern in Redmond. Microsoft recently announced that CEO Steve Balmer has personally taken charge of the firm’s mobile division.

Part of the concern at Microsoft is the strategic important of m-commerce. Current (2G) phones are being replaced by (2.5G) smartphones that will gradually evolve into electronic wallets. This, in turn, will profoundly affect the battle for the consumer, the flow of money, and the development of client and server technology. Moreover, the number of wireless internet clients will soon exceed the number of PC clients (this is already the case in Japan). Microsoft cannot afford to ignore these developments, and that is the crux of the issue: mobile Java is set to play a leading role in the development of software for the wireless internet. The programming language is generally regarded as safe and robust, two important features for financial and other personalised transaction on the web.

The Java tide started to rise last year in Japan. In January 2001, DoCoMo launched i-Appli, a wireless service based on J2ME. The new service was an instant hit. On the day of its introduction, DoCoMo sold 70,000 i-Appli handsets. The new phones offer a host of new features: subscribers can download applications and use them without maintaining contact with DoCoMo’s servers. i-Appli phones are in fact mini-computers, with their own processors, operating systems and memory. The phones greatly expand the functionality, for both provider and user. DoCoMo is able to send subscribers software upgrades, and subscribers can use the phones as a ‘standalone’ computer. i-Appli phones can be programmed to retrieve specific information from DoCoMo’s servers: real-time stock quotes, delays in train or flight schedules and other dynamic information. A Japanese analyst argued recently that Mobile Java is more important than 3G technology.

J2ME was specifically designed for the small memory and slow processing speeds of wireless devices. The programming language is especially popular among developers of wireless games, the pioneers of wireless internet applications. Using J2ME, wireless phones allow for more flexibility in game design. While playing a wireless chess game, for instance, the virtual chessboard can be downloaded to the phones of both players. When one of the players move a piece on the virtual chess board, only the required information is sent to the phone of their opponent – i.e. pawn b4 to b5 – rather than the entire chess board with all its pieces. Analysts expect that wireless games will generate the bulk of income for wireless carriers in the next few years. After 2004, location-based services will generate the most income.

Currently developments in the Asian market suggest a true Java revolution. DoCoMo sold 10 million i-Appli phones in the first year. DoCoMo’s competitors KDDI/au and J-Phone launched their own versions of mobile Java services last summer. The new technology has also taken off in Korea. In China, 6.5 million of the 135 million wireless phones are Java-enabled. The programming language is also making gains in embedded systems. According to the figures from Sun Microsystems, Asian manufacturers have produced more than 7000 devices running Java in embedded systems.

The mobile Java revolution will reach Europe and the US this year. Nokia hopes to sell 50 million Java-enabled phones in 2002. Next year it plans to double that figure to 100 million. The US carrier Nextel recently launched the first Java services in North America. Sprint will follow this spring. Research firm ARC Group predicts that 420 million Java-enabled phones will be sold by 2003. This figure will rise to 1.1 billion in 2006. In that same year, the number of Java-enabled phones will have exceeded the number of PCs.

There are several reasons for the growth in the popularity of Java. Firstly, the programming language is based on open standards. Programmers can freely use the Java source code to write new programs, although Java applications have to pass a test developed by Sun Microsystems before they can use the Java logo, something which Microsoft claims contradicts the open source principle. Secondly, applications written in Java are platform-independent; they run on all common operating systems, including Unix, Windows, MacOS, Linux. Java’s famous mantra is ‘write once, run anywhere, integrate with anything’. This frees programmers from the task of writing different versions of their applications for different platforms. Java is now used in anything from smart cards to supercomputers.

Initially known as ‘Oak’, Java was developed in 1990 for small devices for which no compact software was available. Japan’s Matsushita and Minitel of France Telecom were interested in the new language, but Java initially suffered from coding problems (critics spoke of ‘write once, debug everywhere’). The breakthrough came in 1995, when Sun opened the source code to developers, and made a deal with Netscape to freely distribute the Java Virtual Machine (JVM) on the internet. The JVM is a software program that is installed on the PC to run Java applications. Java soon became the favored tool for interactive web applications, like response forms, virtual shopping baskets and other dynamic content.

The strengths of Java – platform-independence and a (semi) open standard – explain why Microsoft immediately saw the new language as a threat. Java was the proverbial mouse that scared the elephant, and Microsoft used all available means to hamper the growth of Java. Some Java routines that worked with the Netscape browser caused problems with Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer. Microsoft also developed a Java clone (Blackbird, derived from C++, later replaced by Visual Basic), which contained minor deviations from the original Java standard. Drawn-out court battles between Sun and Microsoft were the result, which Microsoft lost. In 1997, a court ordered Microsoft to pay Sun $37 million, and the company was not granted a license for the second version, Java 2.0.

Despite Microsoft’s attempt to block the spread of Java, the programming language enjoys growing popularity among developers throughout the world. A report from the Hurwitz Group shows that in 1995 70% of all programmers used Microsoft tools. In 2001, this figure had dropped to 30%, while the same percentage used Java. Microsoft is also under pressure from Linux, another open source program, which, like Java, is increasingly used for servers. The combination Java/Linux can drastically reduce cost while at the same time reducing dependence on Microsoft. Linux is especially popular in China, a market of crucial importance for IT and telecom firms. Linux makes heavy demands on software engineers, but Chinese programmers cost a fraction of their Japanese and Western counterparts.

Microsoft’s .Net strategy is partly meant to stem the tide of Java/Linux. New programs like Visual J#.Net are intended to persuade Java developers to write applications for .Net. This ambitious project will integrate the Windows platform with the internet, including the mobile internet. Microsoft tries to use its dominant position in the PC market as a crowbar to enter the market for wireless enterprise applications. The company is currently launching its Mobile Information Server (MIS), a middleware program giving companies access to Windows applications with wireless clients like PDAs, smartphones, and laptops. British wireless carrier mm02 will launch MIS-based services in several European countries in the coming months.

With the Stinger platform, Microsoft hopes to break into the consumer market. But here it finds the giants of the wireless industry on its path. Nokia, DoCoMo, Vodafone, SonyEricsson and Motorola will not surrender the driving seat of their industry to Microsoft. This would tie them to the Windows platform, carry the risk of becoming mere ‘subcontractors’ to Microsoft’s .Net project. The lessons from the 1980s, when Microsoft monopolised the PC platform and subsequently cornered the market for applications, have not escaped the wireless industry.

Likewise, few in the wireless industry are eagerly awaiting a ‘Microsoft cellphone’. Only a handful of minor players have taken a license for Microsoft’s Stinger platform. Stinger, an integral part of .Net, is based on the CE platform used in the Pocket PC and embedded systems. Stinger’s lack of support for J2ME is part of the reason why the platform has developed little traction in the industry.

Microsoft’s attempts to expand its reach into the wireless market have led to the creation of several alliances that include nearly the entire telecom and IT industry. IBM, BEA Systems, Vodafone, AT&T Wireless, Cingular, NTT DoCoMo – among others – support Nokia’s Open Mobile Architecture Initiative (OMAI), intended to create an open standard for the wireless industry. OMAI will be based on Symbian, the operating systems developed by Psion but now controlled by the Symbian consortium, which in turn is controlled by Nokia, SonyEricsson, Motorola, Psion and Matsushita. OMAI will be based entirely on open standards, including Java, WAP 2.0/XHTML, MMS (Multimedia Messaging Service) and SyncML. OMAI will also develop back-end software for wireless providers.

The other coalition against Microsoft is the Liberty Alliance, meant to offer an alternative to Microsoft’s Passport, which is part of its .Net project. Passport offers subscribers a secure identity on the internet; users entrust Microsoft with their credit card records and other personal information. Passport would give Microsoft a mechanism for, among other things, collecting micro-payments on internet transactions. The Liberty Alliance is an initiative of Microsoft’s nemesis Sun Microsystems. Like Nokia’s OMAI, it has the support of nearly the entire industry. The Liberty Alliance not only undermines Passport, it also gives the development of mobile Java a boost. Scott McNeally, CEO of Sun, known for his staunch anti-Microsoft stance, refers to the Liberty Alliance as ‘the Passport Killer’, and to .Net as .Not.

Sun Microsystems is not a major threat to Microsoft, but the Liberty Alliance will be a concern in Redmond. The initiative is not only supported by most of the heavyweights in the telecom and IT industry, it also has the support of major financial services companies, among them Visa, MasterCard, American Express and Citigroup. Opposition on this scale may even be too much for the world’s most profitable company. Microsoft has hinted that it may consider joining the Liberty Alliance.

There are also signs that Microsoft has opened a door to J2ME, if only the back door. One of the few companies with a Stinger license is Sendo, not surprising given the fact that Microsoft has a 5% stake in the new British phone maker. But Sendo is about to launch a smartphone with support for J2ME. In Japan, Microsoft is allied with Aplix, a major developer of embedded systems software. Last year, at the Windows Embedded Developers Conference in Japan, Microsoft demonstrated a software development kit for the CE platform. The SDK, developed by Aplix, is based on J2ME.

Java, or so it appears, has already won the battle for embedded systems. The wireless market might be the next prize for Sun and the dedicated Java community. If Asia is any indication, J2ME might very well become the ‘Esperanto’ of the wireless web.

Written by Jan Krikke for PMN Mobile Industry Intelligence.

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