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Perhaps to the surprise of many, next-generation mobile data services appear to have received a generally warm welcome in Europe, with services such as Vodafone Live! reporting unexpectedly high take-up. But there is a looming threat from a lack of cross-device compatibility that could well damage the revenue-earning potential of such services.

The problem with new mobile data services lies not with the services themselves but with the devices used to access them. Operating systems, application environments and hardware platforms for mobile devices are proliferating at an alarming rate. The unfortunate upshot of this proliferation is lack of cross-device compatibility. Even where an application environment is ostensibly device-independent, there is no guarantee that the same application will run on every device so equipped.

The best (or worst) example of this so far is mobile Java (J2ME). A lack of advanced features in the original MIDP specification for mobile phones, has seen handset vendors add their own custom libraries and APIs to the software in an effort to increase functionality and make it compatible with their hardware.

As a result, developers currently have to tweak their applications to each device's particular specifications, not a good use of valuable programming time. Meanwhile, content providers are required to maintain multiple versions of an application in order to service users of different devices.

Looking beyond J2ME, base operating systems for mobile devices are also multiplying, creating an additional problem for content providers. Palm OS- and Pocket PC-powered devices are now increasingly being joined by Symbian OS and even Linux-based alternatives. And there are numerous others.

The situation is further compounded by the multiple hardware reference platforms now available for mobile devices, and the numerous form factors devices can take even when built on the same hardware and software foundations.

While it is unreasonable to expect companies that have invested millions of dollars developing systems to back out of the race, something has to give. What is needed is a software platform that is genuinely independent of the underlying operating system and hardware, and also gives content providers the opportunity to differentiate their offerings in terms of branding. Such systems already exist. And for the sake of the industry they should be used.

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