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Motorola speeds open source momentum with Apache

Fighting fragmentation

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The position of J2ME

The continuing fragmentation of J2ME has led to a severe weakening of Sun's position of influence in the mobile Java world, despite its ownership of the core technology. It has been sidelined by vendors and operators, from Nokia to Vodafone, that have driven the process, even though new Sun CEO Jonathan Schwartz, formerly the company's most senior software executive, has promised a more creative strategy on Java and to put the technology into the open source process. Motorola is not prepared to wait for this, and instead is grasping the initiative itself in the J2ME aspect of the platform.

Motorola is leaping ahead of Sun in embracing open source Java, claiming it is time-critical that the community addresses the main weakness of J2ME, its fragmentation. Slightly different approaches have been adopted by each handset architecture, and Motorola believes an open source approach will help counter this by uniting the developer community.

The company kicked off its effort in May by launching opensource.motorola.com, a new resource aimed at sharing source code and original open source projects, as well as ideas and information with open source developers globally.

The push for open source Java has not been uniform in the mobile community, however, with some developers believing it will increase rather than mitigate the fragmentation problem by reducing the unifying influence of Sun's control. IBM and others resent that they have contributed to Java technology over the years without reward; Sun has claimed Java is the company’s software franchise, and you don’t give away the franchise. After all, Java lies in a long Sun tradition of creating superior technology and then seeking to license it into being a de facto standard.

And open source is not a cure-all – especially not in a mobile world used to dealing with the tightly closed environments of the operators. (See case study below) The success of an open Java would depend on the structure and discipline of the governing body and on ensuring that the software did not become even more susceptible than it already is to inconsistencies and fragmentation. In the smartphone market, this latter would sound a death knell.

The operators have little interest in software technologies, provided developers can provide them with applications that fulfil three key criteria – swift time to market, simple portability over the whole portfolio of phones, efficiency of download. None of these is possible with a fragmented platform. Motorola clearly believes that the Apache process is sufficiently proven and mature to avoid such risks.

The handset giant is also using support for open source as a means to increase its own influence across the whole sector, rather as IBM has in enterprise systems, wrong-footing rivals by putting its weight behind an accelerated move to open systems that could be hard for smaller players to keep up with. In June, Motorola stole the open source initiative temporarily from Nokia - which has increasingly used this process to support its battle with Microsoft – by creating a group of heavyweights that not only aim to fend off Microsoft, but also to weaken the power of Nokia itself in the mobile sector. Motorola and Samsung were the largest names in this group, which aims to establish an open source Linux-based operating system as a de facto standard for cellphones – they were joined by Vodafone and NTT DoCoMo, both of which have been seeking to wrest the balance of power in handset evolution from the vendors, Nokia in particular, as well as NEC and Panasonic.

The aim is to develop standardized application programming interfaces and Linux-based architecture for mobile devices, as well as support for sourcecode-based reference implementations and comliance tools. This environment would compete directly with Windows Mobile and Symbian – the operating system platform dominated by Nokia – and could create, for the first time, a unified, well supported and functional mobile Linux, something that has largely eluded the industry so far, with each phonemaker supporting a different variant of the OS and with only Palmsource seriously focused on addressing critical holes such as the lack of a usable browser. Motorola will contribute its Linux code to the effort, and all members will offer expertise in an effort to come up with a platform in 2007, along with the first supporting handsets. The platform will be licensed through the foundation, which has not been named, although the licensing structure is yet to be determined.

Clearly, this effort and the new moves in Java would fit logically together and could form a dominant software platform for mobile phones in which Motorola would have a guiding influence, and which would force Nokia to address a decision it will clearly have to make some time soon - whether to pursue its once apparent aim of establishing its own software platforms as de facto standards, or to opt wholeheartedly for Linux and bring its Series 60 and Java efforts to that OS, effectively sidelining Symbian.

Case study: Sun's moves to open source

Sun has made some hesitant moves towards openness, notably in 2001 when it set up Project JXTA, a set of Java-based, open source peer-to-peer protocols that allow cellphones, PDAs and other connected devices to communicate. But although there are 16,000 developers in the JXTA community, it remains just a subset of Java and similar moves have not been made in other areas of the platform. There are independent open source initiatives working in Java, such as Apache’s Jakarta Project, which maintains open source, Java-based solutions such as the web applications framework Struts; and the JBoss Java application server. In 2002, open source bodies such as Apache Foundation were permitted to implement a JSR without being constrained by the reference implementation and, for the first time, to submit APIs to the JCP for possible inclusion in future releases. But amendments that go through the JCP, called JSRs, do not have to have an open source implementation – often because they incorporate their sponsors’ patents.

But moves towards greater openness have been hesitant at best and control rests firmly with Sun, which hovers in a halfway house between being just the sponsor of the technology and being a competitor with other makers of real Java-based products . However, it is a myth that all developers and software houses favor open source J2ME. In the fast moving mobile world, the main fear is of anything that slows down or confuses Java and so makes it less appealing to the operators. Surveys of phone-based games creators show most would prefer Java to remain closed, feeling that Sun’s control results in a higher quality, more consistent platform.

Copyright © 2006, 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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