Wireless Serves Java

J2ME delivers graphics to mobile devices

Supporters of Sun Microsystems Java Specification for wireless phones have high hopes that the solution will address some of the shortcomings of current wireless data applications. But it may be some time before its clear whether this iteration of Java will live up to those expectations.

Sun and its wireless partners created Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition — a stripped-down version of Java that resides on handsets and personal digital assistants (PDAs) — hoping that the estimated 2.4 million Java developers worldwide would get busy creating mobile data applications. J2ME is different from Wireless Application Protocol in that it allows developers to deliver graphical elements to mobile devices and allows users to download new applications.

Developers can write a J2ME application just once, and then any type of wireless device loaded with the software can use it, which helped push Motorola, Nokia, Research In Motion, Siemens and others onto the Java bandwagon.

Enterprise customers are expected to benefit most from J2ME.

Many enterprises havent standardized the types of wireless devices that workers use, often because employees are buying their own phones or PDAs. If those workers all want to use a particular enterprise application, its tough for the information technology department to deploy and update that application across the different devices. "One of the problems facing IT departments is how to manage a fleet of devices," says David Yach, vice president for software at RIM.

But if all of the devices have J2ME, new applications can be created using Java tools that developers already know, and IT managers can build updates to applications and send them out to all mobile workers at once.

Today, applications and updates are downloaded when users sync their devices with their personal computers. In the future — later this year, according to Motorola — apps will be downloaded over the air, which means users dont have to be at their desks to receive the new applications.

Nextel Communications became the first to offer Java-enabled handsets in the U.S. in early April, when it rolled out phones produced by Motorola.

Most Nextel customers are business users, and the operator thinks the new Java capabilities will be particularly attractive to them. "We believe well see a boost in efficiency and productivity in the mobile environment," says Nextel CEO Tim Donahue.

Although project management tools or applications that allow workers to check inventory levels and customer status are envisioned, there are only a few simple applications available today, such as a calculator, a loan calculator and an expense pad.

Because J2ME adds intelligence to the handset, it solves one of the major shortcomings of browser-based solutions. "The key to the mobile worker is to have an application that is always available to them, whether or not they have a connection," explains Jim Acquaviva, CEO of Kada Systems, a company that has created a Java app for wireless devices that competes with J2ME.

Few applications need constant connections to the wireless network. "Most of the time, what youre doing is something that doesnt require interaction with the back end," says Prakash Iyer, co-founder and chief technology officer at Everypath, which has developed a platform that allows enterprises to build, manage and deploy mobile applications. For example, a worker in the field may use a mobile device to record observations, but may only need the wireless connection to send that information to a central database.

The additional functionality that J2ME enables, especially the graphical capabilities, is expected to attract new types of companies to the wireless space, which could allow mobile data to make headway in the consumer market as well. "Nike or Pepsi [PepsiCo] might resist going to the current wireless, but with a more creative medium, they can do brand-building," says Jay Steele, Plazmics president and CTO. The companys platform helps developers who are using current wireless standards, and may not know Java, deliver applications for J2ME.

Reaching Dead Ends

J2ME occupies an interesting space in a market where some companies that could be considered competitors are eager to adopt the offering. RIM and Palm, for example, have their own developer platforms that can enable some of the same capabilities as J2ME, yet the companies are on board with J2ME. "Even the Palm OS has reached almost a dead end because its an old model OS [operating system] built for a different purpose," Everypaths Iyer says. "Its the same with RIM."

RIM devices were built primarily for e-mail, even though RIM has now added browsers and other apps to it. The company decided to support J2ME because more developers may be interested in writing apps that they know can run over any sort of mobile device, RIMs Yach says. RIM can still differentiate itself by offering developers additional tools, such as memory profiling, which gives developers specific information about how their apps will run on RIM devices.

Although Microsoft hasnt been very vocal about it, behind the scenes its been pushing its .Net strategy into the wireless industry. Microsoft approached RIM, which wasnt interested. "Most everyone recognizes it as the anti-Java," Yach says.

Nonetheless, there are some shortcomings in Java: Its slow and fat for small wireless devices. But Yach says these problems can be overcome, and the effort is worth it because of the number of developers the platform will attract to wireless.

Other companies would rather compete with J2ME. Kada has created a mobile platform that allows for the creation of Java-based applications for mobile devices; Kadas Acquaviva says it is the smallest, fastest and most complete Java solution. The Kada platform allows for more memory and RAM on the device than J2ME, and enables developers to use the exact same Java tools they already use, he says.

J2ME, Acquaviva says, is too stripped-down. Kada is working with database vendors such as Oracle and Sybase to enable applications that would allow users to access databases from wireless devices.

Qualcomm has also come up with an application platform called Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless, or BREW, that only operates on Code Division Multiple Access networks.