Transcending ordinary technopundit optimism

If you were going to die soon and had only one phone call you could make, who would you call and what would you say? And why are you waiting?

– Stephen Levine, author and philosopher

The wireless applications market has attracted far more ink than really useful applications (unless you count being able to occasionally get stock quotes, provided you’re in an area with Cellular Digital Packet Data coverage, and there are not too many users, and the wind is coming from the right direction, and you remember to sacrifice a small mammal before switching on your phone).

Be that as it may, the belief in the future of this market has transcended the ordinary optimism of the technopundits, and virtually every serious software company has inserted a finger in the presumed-to-be giant unwired pie.

Last year Sun Microsystems Inc. made a big play with Java in the guise of the Java 2 Platform, Micro Edition as the infrastructure for applications that could run in environments as restrictive as cell phones. Now Qualcomm Inc. has not only thrown its hat in the same ring, but has also thumbed its nose at Sun.

Qualcomm’s solution is BREW – Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless – a direct competitor to Sun’s Java for phones, and it has some arguments in its favour. For a start, applications based on BREW are written in C and C++. This allows for smaller run-time code size, smaller operating system overhead and faster performance.

Qualcomm suggests that applications running on BREW will include enhanced e-mail (I have no idea what that might be); mobile text chat; position location services; on-line and off-line games; Internet radio; and streaming video.

To support the development of serious applications, Qualcomm has launched the Qualcomm Venture Fund (with some US$500 million in the kitty!).

While a number of serious players – including VistoCorp., Wireless Knowledge and Hewlett-Packard – are building products and services for BREW, I wonder whether the wireless applications market based around cell phones with ambition is really of anything other than short-term significance.

My doubt comes from two issues: First, underlying these new applications and services are the telephone companies, which so far don’t seem to be committed to providing wireless infrastructure that can cope with more than voice traffic.

Second, today’s cell phones are, in computing terms, where programmable calculators were before the PC market exploded. Remember those things? If you were at all geeky, the idea of a programmable calculator was awesome. Never mind that they were expensive, complex and couldn’t do much. If you’d been hit with the geek stick, you wanted – no, needed – one. But I digress…

My money is on this market being replaced in the near future by a market for devices that are far smarter than today’s cell phone, with more CPU power and more storage.

You want to see the direction cell phones are going? Check out the Motorola V100 due to ship in the U.S. this year.

This device will combine a GSM phone with e-mail and SMS messaging, a full QWERTY keyboard, WAP Internet browser, address book, games and voice dialing, all for US$250. Now for just a few dollars more, don’t you think someone will soon produce a device that’s more like a real PC?

The fact is all this hoopla about mobile wireless applications is really a lot of effort for what will likely be a short-lived iteration of the market. If you buy into today’s vision to build enterprise applications, you may find your short-term advantage is an expensive one. Perhaps you should wait to make that call.

Gibbs is a contributing editor at Network World (US). He is at