Multi-tasking for mid-range devices

Alain Blancquart, Chairman and CEO of Java Virtual Machine (JVM) specialist Esmertec, has published an interesting white paper discussing the potential benefits of running multiple Java applications concurrently on a mobile handset. Esmertec’s Jbed JVM, which is used by numerous handset manufacturers and chipset providers, is the first to offer this capability.

Blancquart believes the ability to multi-task on mid-range, Java-based handsets will ‘transform the mobile user experience’. In practical terms this will enable users to switch instantly between applications which rely on synchronous streams of data (e.g. news tickers or video) and those which operate with an asynchronous model, such as email or web browsing.

Esmertec demonstrated its multi-tasking JVM last month on a LG handset.

Previously these capabilities have required a smartphone operating system, such as Symbian OS or Windows Mobile. This means the devices will typically need more memory and faster processors, resulting in a higher bill of materials and a more expensive handset for the consumer.

The requirement for multi-tasking is likely to grow in direct proportion to the bandwidth available on mainstream mobile handsets. There is a certain amount of potential for using multiple off-line or cached applications on 2.5G handsets, but as anyone who has tried to browse the web and download an email at the same time over a GPRS network will attest, there is little point in trying to use networked applications simultaneously – there simply isn’t enough capacity to make it an acceptable experience.

With the introduction of 3G networks, multi-tasking becomes more relevant. A user could download a music track while navigating information about the band on a portal site. An IM session could run concurrently with a multi-player game, allowing the participants to chat to each other while the game unfolded.

However, this does assume an evolution in the way people use their mobile devices. Back in the early days of the Palm platform (around 1998 I think), Palm conducted some interesting research among its users. It highlighted the tendency for users in the mobile environment to interact with their devices multiple times throughout the day, but for very short periods. In contrast, a fixed user would typically spend a few lengthy sessions immersed in their computing environment. Multi-tasking is an inherently immersive activity, whereas by necessity the mobile environment is a casual medium – it never fully captures the user’s attention because there are many other distractions around them.

For multi-tasking to become really useful on mobile devices, users must start to rely on handsets as media consumption devices rather than communication tools. Inevitably, there will be an element of demand creation involved here – by introducing multi-tasking on mid-range devices, the industry will encourage the use of multimedia services that would not have been possible before. Even so, I believe it will be at least 18 months before such capabilities become a common feature on mass market phones.

You can download Alain Blancquart’s white paper here.

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