Sun Sheds Light on Java Update

Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW) has started dropping hints about what will be included in the next revision of its Java profile for mobile phones, suggesting, perhaps, that it’s getting a wee bit worried about the potential competition in an emerging marketplace where it has been the dominant player to date.

It’s got every reason to be a little anxious, because the eventual market promises to be huge -- so huge that some big players like Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) are bound to try to muscle in on the action.

The Arc Group predicts that there will be 421 million Java-enabled handsets on the market by the end of 2003, up from about 20 million now. (Note the word "enabled"; it’ll be interesting to see how many folks actually make use of Java capabilities once they’ve got them.)

With Microsoft and others breathing down its neck, Sun is letting it be known that the next revision of its Mid P mobile Java (J2ME) profile -- scheduled for availability by the end of this year or in early 2003 -- will have strengthened security capabilities and multimedia features. Putting it another way, Sun is addressing one of the main concerns about the original version of the mobile specification by implementing secure sockets layer (SSL) security in the next version of its profile -- a profile being some code that enables the handset to download and run Java applets to support different services. Previously, SSL was an optional extra, not a full part of the specification.

Sun is also adding to the multimedia capabilities of the profile, no doubt to appeal to audio/visually-minded Japanese and Korean carriers, which have been some of the most aggressive adopters of Java on handsets.

"Sound was not something that was expected to be coming across Java handsets," says Eric Chu, group manager for industry and marketing for Sun's mobile Java unit, explaining the need for more multimedia support in Java. He says that support for graphical sprites will also be part of the revision.

Mobile Java has been available on handsets for nearly two years. Carriers such as NTT DoCoMo and Nextel Communications were early adopters. Chu says that nearly all the major carriers in the U.S. will offer some kind of Java service this year, if they don't already. The only holdout, Cingular Wireless, is "very interested," according to Chu.

However, Java's ascendancy as a mobile platform is being challenged by an old face and a new rival. Microsoft is looking to muscle in on the mobile market with .Net [Ed note: just what is mobile .Net anyway? Answers on a postcard]. Meanwhile, Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) has been promoting its binary runtime environment for wireless (BREW to its friends) application platform for over a year now.

Chu is insistent that neither of these two platforms is -- at least currently -- a rival to mobile Java. ".Net is a concept," Chu says. "[Mobile] Java… is a reality." However, he does not discount the possibility of Redmond becoming a bigger threat in the future. "I definitely would consider it a serious threat [in the future]," he says.

However, he is more dismissive of the threat from Qualcomm's BREW, noting that such carriers as Verizon Wireless are using both J2ME and BREW for new data offerings. "We agree with Qualcomm that we don't really see [BREW] as a competitor," Chu says.

However, others in the industry see it as a battle that Qualcomm has already lost.

"I am very supportive of Qualcomm," said Don Listwin, CEO of wireless software vendor Openwave Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: OPWV), speaking at the Bear Stearns & Co. Inc. technology conference in New York City last week. "But I think that the closed nature of BREW and the momentum behind Java is going to mean that Qualcomm repositions on Java [eventually]." — Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
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