Java spec promises better mobile experience

A new Java specification that will improve mobile phone applications should be ready by year's end.

Work is being wrapped up on the first draft of a set of new Java technologies that could bring big benefits to mobile phone applications for both work and entertainment.

The technologies, embodied in a new Java specification, include management capabilities that should allow mobile operators to send software updates to phones after they have been distributed, monitor hardware resources and even troubleshoot problems remotely, said Jon Bostrom, director of Java technology at Nokia and one of the specification's lead developers.

If a user wants to download a new game and lacks the right codec (coder/decoder), for example, the technology should allow a developer to package the codec and the game together and deliver them at the simultaneously, even installing them while the phone is in use.

The specification also includes runtime technologies that should make it easier for developers to write applications that need to talk to servers or other phones. They might include games that include instant messaging features, or business programs that pull customer information from a back-end systems.

Those applications should be easier to build because the specification provides many of the runtime "services," such as security, message queuing and connectivity, that developers would otherwise have to write for their application. That allows them to focus on their user interfaces and business logic and not worry about the infrastructure, or middleware, components.

"What we're really doing is bringing the middleware environment that has been so successful on servers into mobile clients," Bostrom said.

Nokia and Motorola led the development of the specification, called JSR 232 for Mobile Operational Management. It is also backed by other handset makers, operators and software vendors including Vodafone Group, NTT DoCoMo, IBM and SAP.

SAP is interested because it wants to make it easier for its customers to write client applications that extend its ERP (enterprise resource planning) software to mobile devices, Bostrom said. Phone makers and operators, meanwhile, hope to entice customers with better products and services.

The spec itself is a document hundreds of pages long that tells phone makers and developers how to implement the technologies. It will become part of the J2ME (Java 2 Micro Edition) specification for phones and other embedded devices.

Pertti Korhonen, Nokia's chief technology officer, is expected to show off JSR 232 at next week's JavaOne show in San Francisco. He'll announce when developers can get their hands on a software development kit and show them what it will look like, Bostrom said.

The first draft specification should be completed in about a month, and the final specification is targeted for the end of the year. It may take six to nine months after that for a spec to appear in finished products.

Not everything has gone smoothly. JSR 232 is already a year behind schedule, largely because of the time it took to get the industry players involved to see its benefits. "They're used to the idea that you just burn the software into the phone and ship it. We've had a tremendous education process to go through," Bostrom said.

The group has also had to coordinate each step of its work with a related standards body, the Open Systems Gateway Initiative.

JSR 232 could be a big benefit to both operators and enterprises, but its success depends partly on how much support it can muster from developers, said Mark Blowers, a senior research analyst with Butler Group, in Hull, England.

"It's still early days," he said. "They're at the end of the runway and now they have to see whether it takes off."

Some phone users will be hoping it does. Daren Sidall, a principal analyst with Gartner in the U.K., tried out a service from recently that uses a Java program to deliver celebrity news and pictures to a mobile phone.

The first day's content looked fine, but after that he was unable to download updated content. He found out eventually that the GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) settings on his phone needed changing. Asking his operator seemed like too much hassle so he cancelled the service.

"It's a classic case of a decent service falling at the first hurdle," he said.

It's also the type of problem that JSR 232 should help to fix.

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