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Qualcomm readies Brew for Europe

Eyeing Vodafone and Java

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Two years ago Qualcomm’s mobile content aggregation and delivery platform, Brew, was looking like an endangered species, overshadowed by Java tools and under pressure even in its core markets. The CDMA supremo was widely expected to sideline or even drop the technology, but instead, it has put new efforts into it, as this week’s Brew 2005 conference indicated, and is reinventing it in a way that reflects Qualcomm’s changing relationship with its own customer base. In particular, it has a new content delivery system called Delivery One, which can download non-Brew content such as Java applications and supports advanced user interface tools. This will be the critical weapon in trying to infiltrate the European market and challenge Java-based platforms, especially Nokia’s Preminet, in their heartlands.

Traditionally, Qualcomm has used software products such as Brew to make its core CDMA networks more attractive. It has won success for CDMA by keeping up a close understanding of what carriers needed to deliver, and made far earlier advances than the GSM community towards support for multimedia, complex content and customizable interfaces, all key cellco requirements for their 2.5G and 3G systems. This helped it to attract carriers to CDMA and so to lure the equipment majors to its chips, tying in customers in the US, south east Asia and elsewhere.

Now, however, Qualcomm has to play a different game, since it has moved aggressively into chips for the GSM world in the shape of its third generation, W-CDMA. This means Qualcomm is no longer just dealing with a relatively closed community of captive customers but has to compete in the open market for the attentions of vendors that are more used to buying chips from Texas Instruments or Freescale. It will seek to do this in the same way as it did in the CDMA market it controls – through a clear comprehension of what network and handset features will most appeal to operators.

But it knows that, while W-CDMA may be its passport for final entry into Europe, which has been a closed market until now, European cellcos have extremely demanding approaches to content and customization. This means that Brew will be an important element in convincing equipment makers that Qualcomm chips will give them an edge in appealing to the operators in this region.

Opening up Brew

There has been a string of hardware enhancements to CDMA chips this year, many geared towards multimedia, as well as the creation of the MediaFlo mobile broadcasting technology. Brew is also an important part of the picture, with the potential to make it easier for carriers to create and deliver new content and services, and to make the subscriber experience more customizable.

As such, Brew needs to be separated from CDMA and, along with MediaFlo, positioned as a technology that puts Qualcomm at the heart of the content delivery challenge, regardless of the network. In a world where control of software platforms will be more important for margins and industry influence than hardware, Qualcomm will want Brew not only to drive sales of its chips, but to become an important product in its own right. In this way, it exactly reflects the ambitions of Nokia for its new Preminet content framework, which the US company admits is very similar in concept to Brew, claiming to be “flattered” by the emulation by its Finnish arch-rival.

Several important changes are being made to Brew to reflect its broader role and the shift of its parent into more open markets. Most of these follow on logically from the critical change to Brew strategy, made over a year ago, when it was first able to support Java applications. This was a necessary survival tactic, given that Java was growing far more rapidly than Brew and so needed to be accommodated if it were not to kill its rival. Now, the announcements at Brew 2005 show Qualcomm stepping up its bid to make Brew a solution that will increase its influence on non-CDMA networks as well as CDMA, and in new geographical markets.

For a chipmaker, Qualcomm has a shrewd understanding of what operators and consumers are looking for, and so the keynotes for Brew this year revolve around advanced gaming, Java, multimedia content and putting the end user in control of his or her mobile experience. All these are important themes for the operators in 2005-6 and Qualcomm has picked them up skilfully in laying down its new roadmap for Brew. It is important that its moves succeed, because the Java world finally has a strong content latform of its own in the shape of Preminet. Nokia’s platform makes up for many of the disadvantages that Java had compared to Brew, making the wider uptake of the Sun Microsystems technology all the more threatening to Qualcomm’s ability to keep a strong position in the content market.

Preminet

Before Preminet launched last October, and especially after Brew opened up to run on Java platforms, Qualcomm’s framework had genuine advantages over Java, which Nokia is now seeking to neutralize with the creation of, in effect, the first real ecosystem for J2ME (Java2 Mobile Edition). Chief among Brew’s advantages for operators is that it offers a ready-to-go system with simple distribution, digital rights management and billing frameworks and aggregated content; and for content developers that Qualcomm controls the value chain, making it clear where each element sits and how money is made.

Sun went some way to matching Brew’s advantages in J2ME in 2003 when it acquired Pixo, whose technology became the basis for its Content Delivery Server for carriers, which aggregates, manages and bills for downloaded material in the same way that Brew does. A year ago, it duly introduced that product and made its first steps towards a formal ecosystem with standard methods of gathering content, provisioning it, collecting payments and sharing them with partners. Key to this was the Java Mobility Advantage Programme to help operators and developers develop, manage and sell Java services.

However, little really happened as a result of these changes, and the baton passed to Nokia, whose Preminet promises to codify the J2ME ecosystem and its mechanisms, just as Qualcomm has for Brew. Preminet is a distribution and transaction service, offering a one-stop shop for developers and carriers on either CDMA or GSM-based systems.

Significantly, and possibly complacently, Nokia has excluded Brew from Preminet, while Brew is moving this week towards even greater openness with Delivery One.

User interfaces

One of the most important tactics for Brew to keep biting at Java’s heels is support for customizable interfaces. While software platforms have been important to cellcos to create their own user interfaces, to help strengthen their own brand image and differentiation, now the process may be shifting to the end user.

Many consumers wish to be able to control their own experience and even transfer their user interface even when they change network or handset – another in the stream of examples of consumers chafing against the controlled environments of the mobile operators and demanding a more open platform.

Anticipating this trend, Qualcomm last year bought UK start-up Trigenix, a specialist in mobile interfaces, and created uiOne, a very graphics rich capability that is now an option within Brew that has been implemented first by US carrier Alltel. Although uiOne gives cellcos more advanced tools to create innovative UIs, it can also be put into the hands of end users. Qualcomm sees customized UIs moving alongside wallpaper and ringtones as a major revenue generator that will compensate operators somewhat for the loss of brand control.

Trigenix was not just important for the new features it has added to Brew, but in furthering Qualcomm’s ambitions in its least familiar territory, Europe. Peggy Johnson, head of Qualcomm Internet Services, told a recent interview: “Our acquisition of Trigenix was a big turning point. We found that in Europe, there was a strong need for differentiation.” She said the sales cycle is longest in Europe and the needs of operators very different, but that Trigenix has been an “inflection point” that has put Brew closer to these needs, with various trials ongoing. Of course, the other key factor in Europe is that carriers are starting to roll out 3G in the shape of W-CDMA, a platform on which Brew can work as it cannot on GSM.

The ability for handset makers and operators to reduce the time it takes to create a complex UI is important to platforms such as Vodafone Live! Although Live! has a strong reliance on Java technologies, its complicated UI requirements could be a way in for Brew, believes Qualcomm. “Vodafone live! Has a very thick document of user interface requirements that the handset manufacturers have to build into their handsets. This is a perfect use of uiOne because it can allow the handset manufacturers to shorten the time to market to get that specific user interface back to Vodafone,” said Johnson. “You see that duplicated with all the European operators. They have a lengthy list of user interface requirements.”

Europe

The other critical factor in Europe will be the ability to download non-Brew content, especially Java applications, enabling Brew to be adopted on a W-CDMA network without the carrier having to sacrifice popular content and apps. Qualcomm clearly has designs on Vodafone’s massive networks and admits that the possibility of infiltrating the world’s largest cellco – which co-owns Brew’s largest customer, Verizon Wireless, the only CDMA element of the Vodafone family – was a major reason why the Brew model has been adapted to be more open and to support download of Java, Symbian and other software.

In Europe, this will be critical not just to win over 3G carriers, but to keep Qualcomm out of a race to attract a massive developer community for Brew to rival Forum Nokia and other Javaoriented groups. It could not win this race – although the regular payment mechanisms and some graphics functions are among the advantages that may help boost the Brew ecosystem in Europe - but it can bring those communities within its own framework. Brew users will not download a Java virtual machine in order to run an app but will receive Java or Symbian content through a European content delivery system from elata, which also has extensive relationships with European carriers.

Qualcomm may have its eyes on Vodafone, but it also knows that Brew can build up support from midrange players and the emerging breed of MVNOs (virtual operators). One strong tactic in the past year has been to open up Brew to smaller operators through a hosted services option, pioneered with Midwest Wireless in the US, which hosts applications on behalf of smaller partners. This could be highly important in emerging markets and in Europe, where one of the main factors that is likely to divide the tier one and tier two carriers is access to an advanced multimedia content platform.

Copyright © 2004, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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