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Oracle finally outlines roadmap for mobile Java

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There has been considerable criticism of Oracle since it acquired Sun Microsystems, and with it, the Java technology. In particular, the database giant has been accused, by Google and others, of failing to provide clear direction and leadership for the mobile version of the open source software, which underpins a huge percentage of low-end and midrange handsets, as well as media players and other devices, and many mobile apps and content delivery systems.

Oracle went some way to address its critics at the OpenWorld JavaOne conference, promising hardware accelerated graphics and web integration for mobile Java. Its plans are particularly interesting in light of the firm‘s quarrels - including Android-related patent litigation, with Google, which uses its own Java virtual machine, Dalvik, on its OS.

Java‘s mobile iteration, ME, is now to be brought firmly into the world of modern web apps and development, and will be able to render the key web standards – HTML, CSS and Javascript - by default. Java ME will also gain engines for Javascript and for WebKit browsers, and a Java-to-JavaScript Bridge. This will allow Java ME handsets to access web services and apps outside the browser and without the current performance issues in this area.

Oracle also promised a Java rendering engine to enhance 2D and 3G graphics, available next year. This will plug into the virtual machine and into Java FX, one of the most important technology layers Sun added to open source Java, supporting the creation of rich graphics and user interfaces. As The Register describes, the engine will support "modern graphics hardware accelerators", notably Direct X for Windows and OpenGL.

Java ME will be optimized for the ARM7 and ARM9 processor designs commonly used in handsets, and the stack will be upgraded to support mobile phone APIs handling functions like telephony, payments and location. This will enable Java developers to create apps that tap into those phone functions directly, rather than relying on less optimized web-based alternatives.

All this should bring Java, which usually lives in featurephones, closer to the smartphone experience, a goal also pursued by the other major midrange apps platform, Qualcomm Brew, and by Java-based software players like Myriad. Such initiatives are important as mass markets and developing economies start to demand support for mobile apps and browsers, but on low cost, contract-free handsets. Many operators – like AT&T and Verizon with their support for Brew – see this as a way to get more value from the prepaid base; to attract low end users who may later upgrade to full smartphone plans; and control the user experience. Many carrier app stores, like the one from Orange, support Java apps as well as products for fully blown operating systems like Android or Symbian.

By belatedly setting out Java‘s roadmap for the next generation of mass mobile apps, Oracle is staking a claim to considerable influence over the mobile experience. It also aims to achieve a more prominent role for Java FX, a hugely promising technology that was sadly underpromoted by Sun, rather like Java in general. Oracle will now open source FX and the Java user interface controls, under the GPL process used by the main Java platform, to get it the same visibility among programmers as Flash or Silverlight.

"We want the nine million Java developers in the world to never have to chose a different environment to build a great looking UI ever again," SVP Thomas Kurian told the conference. The next release of FX, in Q311, will introduce generics, annotations and multithreading, and continue work started by Sun to open the VM to non-Java languages including JRuby, Groovy and JavaScript, says The Register.

Instead of Java ME, Android uses a subset of the Apache Software Foundation's Harmony and runs the Dalvik VM, claiming this delivers better performance than ME. Oracle will clearly be trying to take any sting out of these claims now.

Copyright © 2010, 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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