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Java community splits on mobile software

Posted: 02 Jul 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:mobile software Java  separate path cell phone software  Java products 

Despite having a common goal, Java giants Motorola, Nokia and Sun Microsystems are ploughing separate paths for the future of cell phone software. The widening divergence in their commercial Java products?and differences of opinion about how to keep Java open?threatens to fracture the broad community of Java developers.

Sun in May announced Java Mobile FX, a high-end software package for cell phones based largely on a desktop Java software it recently acquired from Savaje Technologies. Sun also disclosed its plans for making Java open source.

Motorola and Nokia executives said news of the Sun mobile software took them by surprise. They also expressed concerns about some of the details of Sun's open-source plans.

The two companies are basing their Java road maps on software drawn from separate pools of open-source software.

"There are a number of issues with Sun's open-source plans that are making us nervous," said Jon Bostrom, senior director of Java technology at Nokia. Before he joined Nokia four years ago, Bostrom was one of the leaders behind Sun's mobile Java effort.

All sides agree that Java needs to be open and must move up to support a coming generation of more powerful handsets with rich media capabilities. They also want to see mobile Java support Web 2.0 constructs that let users create services by mixing and matching code from various applications. But each company has its own beliefs about how best to accomplish those goals.

Sun rolls 'jPhone'
Sun hopes to sell its Mobile FX code as a complete binary package for delivering graphics- and feature-rich handsets with a look and feel similar to Apple Inc.'s iPhone. Sun is mainly targeting Taiwan's cell phone makers, hoping to get its software into handsets shipping early next year.

One Sun engineer said the code is based on the desktop version of Java?Standard Edition (SE)?ported to a Linux core. Sun is expanding the application programming interfaces of the original Savaje software to include support for the Mobile Services Architecture, a set of Java standards that includes Web services capabilities. The code requires at least 32MB of RAM and a 200MHz ARM 9 processor.

Sun's Richard Green shows prototype phone with Java Mobile FX software.

Java Mobile FX is "a complete desktop-scale environment that puts the network in your hand," said Richard Green, executive VP of Sun's software group, announcing the product in his keynote address at the recent JavaOne Conference in San Francisco.

Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz expressed high hopes for the future of the software as an enabler for phones that ultimately will be the devices with which users in the developing world will first link to the Internet. "We tend to look at the PC and say, 'That's the Internet,' but that's not reflective of the real opportunity around the world," said Schwartz.

Others took a more sceptical view. "The Savaje technology has been tried before and got zero uptake, so I don't see why it will be any different coming from Sun. I don't understand the value proposition," said Bostrom.

"The SE library does not fit into 32MB, so they will have to subset it. I wonder how they will do that," he added.

Indeed, with Mobile FX, Sun will be competing directly with Java partners such as Nokia.

"We are providing a full software stack for the cell phone, like the Nokia Series 60 software, so I guess we are in competition with them," said Tim Cramer, executive director of customer solutions in Sun's software group.

Chasing Java
Motorola is pursuing Java unity by riding the Java subset known as the Mobile Information Device Profile (MIDP).

"The only way to cut out fragmentation is to go with a common code base, and we have a 10-year history of a Java runtime environment based on MIDP," said Mark VandenBrink, a fellow in Motorola's cellular group.

The company shipped one of the first Java-based phones using MIDP 1.0 in 1999. Last year, it released an open-source version of its implementation of MIDP 2.0. It is now working on a version of MIDP 3.0, being defined in the Java standards group for probable release late this year.

Some observers expressed concerns that with its move to the desktop-derived Java Mobile FX, Sun might phase out support for the mobile subset of Java on which MIDP is based. That is not the case, Green said. But he also opened the door to further fragmentation in mobile by revealing that Sun is considering the release of an embedded version of its Solaris OS geared for mobile systems.

While the details of the struggle are new, the underlying problems are as old as Java itself. The Sun-developed language has been widely used in handsets for years and now appears on as many as 180 crore cell phones, according to Sun. But the implementations of Java on handsets vary so widely that developers complain they must write applications that are specific to each OEM or carrier.

"Java has had the promise of 'write once, run anywhere,' but we haven't achieved that yet," said VandenBrink. "It's a matter of standardising on a code base."

Three roads to tomorrow's Java phone: How Motorola, Nokia and Sun are diverging on Java's highest-volume platform.

Breakup rumours
For years, Java proponents like Motorola have pushed Sun to be more open about Java as a way to create such a common base. But Sun's latest efforts have only fuelled more talk about fragmentation.

At JavaOne, Sun announced it is making its OpenJDK developer kit open source through ver 2.0 of the General Public Licence (GPL). It also set up an interim governing board for open-source Java comprising two Sun executives and three open-source activists.

Bostrom criticised Sun's moves, saying the GPL is more restrictive than such alternatives as the Apache licensing model. He also said the board gave Sun too much control. "In a really open model, everyone can jockey for who has control, and the deck is not stacked from the go signal," he said. "With Sun's move, the deck is pretty stacked. This is not a level playing field for Nokia. It doesn't seem very open to me."

Nokia is active in both the JCP standards group, set up by Sun, and the Eclipse Foundation, favoured by backers of the OSGi Alliance's Java standards.

VandenBrink noted that with its OpenJDK, Sun has made its Java compilers and tools open source. Unlike Motorola, however, Sun is not opening up its run-time environments, such as the new Mobile FX code.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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