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Java to dominate consumer electronics?

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Java and Linux could dominate consumer electronics, but to do so, Java needs to be less fragmented and highly resource efficient, making it suitable at last for the mass market.

As the phone, PC and media center converge around the same architectures, companies from all three sectors are adapting their technologies to span the others. Microsoft is seeking to do this with Windows Mobile and real time CE, and Nokia has its phone-based home entertainment devices. Two platforms, however, already straddle these three worlds - Java and Linux. These could form a powerful combination to dominate the consumer space, rendering the mobile operating wars irrelevant outside the enterprise sector.

After years of seemingly failing to notice just how valuable an asset it had in Java, and missing many opportunities to exploit it, Sun now has its best chance ever to control a potentially universal technology. And the pressure to open source Java has eased somewhat with the signing of its recent pact with Microsoft to end patent and antitrust actions - one motivation was surely to bolster Sun's alliances and not force it to fight on two Java fronts, with IBM over open source and with Microsoft.

While the combination of Java and mobile Linux could become even more attractive to the cost-sensitive commodity handset industry with the lowering of prices that open source Java would bring, it could also increase problems of fragmentation.

This has been a big enough issue for the mobile version of Java even in its semi-closed state, and one that Sun is now seeking to address. On its other big challenge, efficiency, however, the initiative has been firmly grabbed by a third party, Java platform supplier Esmertec, which claims the slimmest implementation of the software, suitable for low cost handsets with limited memory and processor power.

Resource efficiency

For Java to live up to the forecasts that by 2008 it will ship on 85 per cent of new handsets - it is currently supported on less than a quarter of phones, though on almost half of new shipments - it needs to be highly resource efficient. To date, it has only had a place on high end smartphones and media phones, which command sufficiently large price tags that manufacturers can be generous with processor speed and memory and so counter the effects of battery drain. This has created a particularly attractive market in Japan and Korea, where consumers will bear far higher phone prices than elsewhere.

But in the European and US mass markets, price and battery life remain the top two factors in consumer choice, which means making Java efficient on small devices - while still being able to deliver the kind of services that are currently the preserve of the premium phones, but will increasingly become expected on all models.

"The demand on memory, battery and clock speed is growing more quickly than the efficiency of the hardware, so the efficiency of software becomes critical," commented Christophe Francois, head of strategic marketing at Esmertec. Yet it is vital, particularly for the success of 3G, that complex handsets that are easily customisable and offer multimedia services can be delivered at low cost, to encourage users in mature markets like Europe to upgrade their handsets and move to 3G services.

This dilemma is the basis for the main strategic thrust at Esmertec, maker of Java runtime environments and application platforms for chipmakers, OEMs and ODMs. While its main rival, Japan's Applix, focuses on feature-rich but resource hungry implementations for the customised handsets of the Asian carriers, Esmertec is aiming for a broader base and is even adapting its technology for set-top boxes, cordless and VoIP phones, machine-to-machine communications and, potentially, for in-car systems.

It has signed a deal with Time Warner for interactive TV boxes in the US, and will soon announce a telco partnership in Europe. In M2M, it is partnering with Wavecom. All of these are markets where the devices need to be low cost and compact, and so require high levels of resource efficiency, and where the dominant OS will increasingly be Linux.

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