Vodafone, Orange invest in wireless Java OS

Two of Europe’s largest mobile phone operators have quietly invested in a U.S. software startup developing a new operating system based on Java technology. The investments highlight the growing interest of mobile operators not only to differentiate themselves through customized software but also to decrease their dependence on any one operating system, such as Nokia Corp.’s Series 60 or Microsoft Corp.’s Smartphone.

The investment arms of Orange SA and Vodafone Group PLC, together with a handful of venture capital companies, have invested US$17.5 million in SavaJe Technologies Inc. in a drive “for open standards and greater choice,” said Jon Earl, a spokesman for Vodafone, Monday. “If operators and their software and application developers are able to utilize open standard platforms, they won’t be held to specific handsets and manufacturers,” he said. “That means they’ll be able to develop and offer new applications to customers more easily, quickly and cheaply.”

Earl referred to Vodafone’s investment in SavaJe, which is developing Java-based applications and an operating system for wireless devices, as “an investment for the mobile industry as a whole.” He declined to say whether Vodafone, Europe’s largest cell phone operator, had any concrete plans to launch a new phone using SavaJe technology, noting only that the company is keen to support open standards and create greater choice of operating system.

Vodafone of the U.K. has collaborated with Sharp Corp. and Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd. (better known for its Panasonic brand) to introduce camera phones supporting the operator’s new Live! multimedia messaging service.

France’s Orange is the first operator in Europe to launch a phone based on Microsoft’s Smartphone technology.

Java, according to SavaJe, is already installed in millions of handsets as a means of downloading games and other external applications. Now the company has decided to put a version of this software that is based on Java, developed by Sun Microsystems Inc., at the core of its operating system, the Chelmsford, Massachusetts, startup said in a statement.

SavaJe could no be immediately reached for comment.

The company’s operating system will use Java to run not only installed applications, but also Web services, downloads and wireless upgrades and modifications, the statement said.

The technology requires no other operating system to function, and Java is the only computing language required to develop applications for devices incorporating the operating system, according to SavaJe.

Wireless operators and OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) will be able to develop their own customized interfaces, services and applications complete with their own brands, the company said.

While linking a brand like Orange or Vodafone to a customized software product can provide differentiation, the hook-up can be risky if the technology has flaws, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Gartner Inc. “Mobile users don’t really care whose operating system is in their handsets,” she said. “They just want their phones to work and if they don’t, the operator will be penalized, not the software provider.”