Sun’s developer show goes wireless

Using Java to build applications that can be sent over the airwaves to cellular phones and handheld computers will be a central theme at Sun Microsystems Inc.’s JavaOne conference, which kicks off Monday at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.

Operators will set up no less than three next-generation cellular networks on the show floor, hoping to attract developers by showing the types of applications that are supported by the high-speed, packet-based networks being rolled out this year. A raft of vendors hawking handsets, development tools and other software for the wireless market will also be on hand.

Among the news makers, Waterloo, Ont.-based Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) will release a new software development kit for the BlackBerry, allowing developers to create enterprise applications for its handheld device using Java 2 Micro Edition (J2ME). RIM worked with SAP AG, Computer Associates International Inc. and Cognos Inc. to make it easier for developers to extend backend software from those vendors to the Blackberry, and will announce further partnerships soon, said Jim Balsillie, RIM’s chairman and co-chief executive officer.

“The basic message is that with Java and these new 2.5G networks, the networks are now a platform,” Balsillie said in an interview. “Blackberry was really just an application. Voice and data were just an application. What’s really exciting is putting the platform in place, because that means you can bolt on all kinds of (applications and services).”

Hoping to lure developers by showing them the types of applications they can “bolt on,” Sprint Corp. will rig up a local CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) 3G network on the show floor, Nokia Corp. will deploy a 2.5G GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) network and Nextel Communications Inc. will set up its 2.5G iDEN network, according to Eric Chu, a group marketing manager with Sun’s consumer and embedded group.

Nextel will demonstrate a handful of Java applications including one from Hillcast Technologies Inc. that streams financial market information in real time to Internet-ready phones, and a program from Digital Cyclone Inc. that delivers personalized weather forecasts, a spokeswoman said. Other applications that take advantage of increased bandwidth and always-on connections will also be demonstrated.

J2ME has gained traction in the wireless industry in part because it’s well suited to the limited resources available on smaller devices, and because users can access programs instantly without needing to drill down through an operating system menu, said Seamus McAteer, principal analyst with Zelos Consulting LLC, in San Francisco. Perhaps more importantly, developers can write an application once and have it delivered to a broad range of Java-enabled devices.

“In the mobile space, the promise of write once, run anywhere is for the most part being fulfilled,” he said.

RIM’s Balsillie agreed: “The operating system is totally irrelevant,” he said.

Sun has worked to convince carriers that new Java-based services can help them recoup heavy investments made in their new networks. By some estimates it is succeeding. U.K. research company Arc Group predicted bullishly in November that 421 million Java-enabled handsets will be in use worldwide by 2003, and that all digital phones sold in five years will support Java.

At last year’s JavaOne, mobile applications for Java were talked about but have so far only happened in Japan, said Chu. This year will see it come to the U.S., he said. In Japan, Java-enabled handsets were launched a year ago and NTT DoCoMo Inc. has already sold 12 million Java-equipped handsets. They allow users to run applets that do a host of things including wake them up with a weather forecast, scroll stock quotes and play games.

“The wireless industry has decided (JavaOne) is critical for them to show their latest gear and attract developers,” Chu said. “All the investment they made in upgrading their networks will come to nothing if they don’t have the applications to attract users.”

The development of a wireless platform hasn’t been swift, however. RIM’s Balsillie recalled being on a discussion panel in 1998 with wireless industry executives who already were excited about the potential of Java and 2.5G networks.

“I think the real news is that it’s finally here,” he said. “We’ve been waiting for so long. It is genuinely a game-changer, it is as good as we say it is. It just wasn’t here when people wanted it to be, which was a couple of years ago.”

Nor have Sun’s ambitions in the wireless market gone unchallenged. Qualcomm Inc. has been signing partners for BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless), its software development platform for phones, and Microsoft Corp. has built wireless telephony into its software for handheld computers and smart phones. Other vendors are also staking out the space.

Nevertheless, the volume and breadth of wireless-related announcements expected at JavaOne point to growing momentum behind Sun’s technology. Following are a handful of them:

— Nokia will announce plans for a service for wireless carriers who want to deploy J2ME applications to subscribers. The Finnish phone maker will offer to host applications on its servers and deliver them to customers as if they were connecting directly to their cellular operator. Games are likely to be the first applications, which consumers will be able to download for US$1 or $2, plus the airtime it takes to download the application, said Lee Wright, director of global developer marketing and Web initiatives at Nokia.

Further details, including the name of the service, weren’t disclosed ahead of the show. Nokia will also offer a server and software package for carriers who don’t want to use the hosted service, Wright said.

— Nextel will unveil new server software that lets corporations send business data to and from cell phones securely, the spokeswoman said, although she declined to elaborate ahead of the show.

— Sprint will present developers with a toolkit for writing Java applications that can be delivered over its 3G network, which is planned for launch in the U.S. in mid-2002. It will also show Java applications running on color 3G handsets from Samsung that were unveiled this week and are also scheduled to launch mid-year.

— Motorola subsidiary Metrowerks will release an update to its CodeWarrior tools that includes support for J2ME and PersonalJava along with development kits from Nokia, Siemens AG and Motorola Inc. The company has also partnered with AGEA Corp., which will provide software that should make it easier to incorporate directory, authentication, security and event management functions into enterprise applications, according to Gerardo Dada, a Metrowerks senior product manager.

— Sun will announce an update to Forte for Java that includes its wireless development tools. It will also announce technology enhancements around its Java Virtual Machine intended to boost application performance, he said.

— Oracle Corp. will announce new tools intended to help simplify the development of business applications for use on Java-enabled devices, industry sources said. Oracle declined to comment.

(Ephraim Schwartz, an editor-at-large with Infoworld in San Francisco, contributed to this report.)