A battle brews in the wireless OS world

Major technology developer Qualcomm last month introduced a new entry into the world of wireless operating systems (OS) for the next generation of cell phones.

Dubbed Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless, or BREW for short, Qualcomm is aiming to peddle the technology to wireless software developers. The company is hopeful that developers will create software applications that could be downloaded by consumers via the BREW technology, generating a recurring revenue stream for the company.

Currently, Qualcomm makes a significant portion of its revenue through the licensing of its code division multiple access (CDMA) wireless transmission technology, which sits on an estimated 70 million cell phones worldwide. In Canada, both Mississauga, Ont.’s Bell Mobility and Calgary’s Telus Mobility use the CDMA network.

Though BREW is a late entry into the race to create a dominant wireless OS – Nokia, Microsoft, Sun, Motorola and Intel are all working on their own platforms – it will benefit from its position on the CDMA chipset, said Iain Grant, a telecommunications analyst with Brockville, Ont.’s The Yankee Group in Canada.

“I think you’re going to find Bell and Telus prefer Qualcomm,” he said.

Grant cautioned, however, that the ubiquity of Java developers – more than two million worldwide, according to estimates – means Sun might find generating software partnerships easier than Qualcomm will.

He also expected some of the six companies developing cell phone operating systems to work together, a situation that is already becoming apparent with Sun’s partnership with Motorola. The two companies are working together to bring Java-enabled handsets to the market this year.

Telus spokesperson Mark Langton said the company will be introducing a Java-enabled phone to customers on the company’s Clearnet Mike network this year. The Mike phones, which are geared for business users, operate on Motorola’s IDEN system.

Adrian Stimpson, the president of Toronto-based wireless software developer Telesis, said his company doesn’t really care what operating system emerges triumphant, as long as it is standards-based and makes developing software for various devices easy.

“We’ve always taken the approach (that) we’ll support whatever is popular,” Stimpson said.

Stimpson did express hope that whatever operating system achieves ubiquity does not require software developers to reinvent the wheel, so to speak. He believes that packet data-equipped mobile phones and personal devices will only become a necessity to business users, rather than a luxury, if they can access the corporate back-end systems with ease.

In many cases that means being able to access various desktop applications, such as Microsoft’s Office suite, he said.

Stimpson said it was for this reason his company originally thought it might throw its support behind Windows CE, Microsoft’s wireless OS offering, but he said there is now doubts in the industry as to the future of WinCE.

When the dust settles in the wireless OS battle, Grant expects there to be no clear winner.

“I think we’ll still have the same ‘babble’ of operating systems (as we have with PCs),” Grant said. He also did not foresee any one company’s OS becoming as dominant as Microsoft’s Windows has been for the PC, as he described Microsoft’s ascendance in the 80s as “lucky.”

“IBM was asleep at the time,” he explained.