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Motorola speeds open source momentum with Apache

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The biggest obstacle in Java's path to becoming the dominant software architecture for mobile phones has been its fragmentation - both in terms of technical features and the various licensing schemes adopted by its early exponents. The past two years have seen the handset makers and large operators increasingly taking the steering wheel of the mobile Java movement, seeking to create unified platforms and work around the confusion caused by Sun's halfhearted open source approach. Motorola has been the most aggressive in recent months, and making itself the leading light in an industry-wide mobile Java framework would certainly score it major competitive points against arch-rival Nokia, which is equally committed to Java, but has tended to plough its own furrow. Motorola's latest move is to adopt the Apache Software Foundation's open source licensing process in the hope of making this the standard for Java ME, the mobile version of the architecture.

Motorola will build a Java ME (Micro Edition) software stack using the Apache License Version 2.0, claiming this will help unify the market. It also aims to align its future Java ME-based development with Apache’s model of licensing and open governance.

This is the most definitive move yet to take Java ME out of the hands of start-ups and specialists - and sideline Java owner Sun - and put it into the hands of a broadly respected open source movement. Apache makes the Linux-based web server that dominates the internet world, and last summer Nokia promised to bring this technology to the mobile phone. Together with Motorola's decision to choose Apache's particular process for making mobile Java fully open source, this sees Apache hopeful of the same pivotal position in mobile internet that it has in the PC-based web.

“We see industry fragmentation and proprietary software models as an obstacle to unharnessing the full power of innovation in the mobile Java ecosystem,” said Mark VandenBrink, chief platform architect for Motorola’s Mobile Devices unit. “We believe developers, customers, partners and the industry at large will benefit from a new open source model."

A common open source approach adopted across the sector would reduce Java software costs and lower time to market as well as the burden of R&D and testing, creating a larger market and making J2ME viable on all but the most basic phones. This in turn would drive the expansion of multimedia applications - Java's chief use is as the engine and download platform for content-oriented mobile software - to a wider base. Although other content platforms, notably Qualcomm Brew, now support J2ME in recognition of the architecture's almost unstoppable progress, it remains confined mainly to high end and some midrange handset models.

A commonly adopted set of Java features, with a unified process for adding new ones and licensing them at no cost, would be one step towards the ultimate carrier goal of a low-royalty handset, and one that would not need to be subsidized. For the first time, Java ME would come close to the 'write once, run everywhere' promise that has so far failed to be kept in the mobile world.

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