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BREWing Up a Storm

BREWing Up a Storm

Sun recently made what appeared to be a small announcement, that QUALCOMM would be distributing a J2ME implementation for their mobile phone handsets, but it's a small announcement that belies its importance in the mobile phone world. While most phone manufacturers, particularly in Europe, have embraced Java, QUALCOMM has always maintained that their proprietary BREW platform was preferable at least in terms of stability and security.

We covered the dilemma facing the mobile phone industry - whether users should be allowed to run unknown applications on their handsets - in some detail last month. In that article I pointed out closed platforms, like BREW, which require license fees to be paid for both development and deployment, allow networks to certify every application, and prevent the long-feared mobile phone worm or virus from becoming a reality.

By ensuring every application available has been certified, users can be confident of running anything they come across without having to worry about malicious code affecting their phones. But there is a cost to be paid to achieve such confidence; in terms of money and utility, the requirement for license fees to be paid cuts out the small/home developer we used to refer to as a "hacker" before the term got hijacked.

These hacked-together applications are often given away free, or at minimal cost, and are written largely for love rather than profit. A quick search on the Internet for freeware reveals just how many applications are available for open platforms such as J2ME, while the same search for BREW shows some people asking about it, followed by home-brew beer sites! Of course, quantity is no guarantee of quality, and mobile phone users will have to decide if they want their phones to end up like their PCs, with antivirus software constantly keeping guard on applications that crash with alarming regularity.

So what exactly does this announcement mean? Certainly there is no indication that QUALCOMM intends to drop BREW as a development platform, but we wouldn't expect to see that even if they were. The question we have to ask is why someone would decide to develop using BREW on a platform that supports J2ME. While they might have experience using BREW, or a preference for it, it's clear that Java is the larger platform, both in terms of development tools and availability of skills, but BREW isn't out of the picture.

While J2ME Midlets are fine for basic functionality, they are still limited by the Sand Box that encompasses all untrusted applications. While MIDP 2.0 (the latest version of J2ME, though not yet available on phones) offers some granularity in its security, MIDP 1.0 is pretty basic in the same way Java applets on worldwide Web sites are restricted in what they can do. So a Midlet can't send or receive messages, such as SMS, or dial phone numbers, or communicate with the address book stored on the phone or any of the other applications there.

Midlets still currently exist in their own universe, bounded on all sides by security mechanisms designed to keep them in, and able to communicate with the whole world (over the Internet) except for their neighboring applications. This is deliberate, so users can freely download and run what they wish without being concerned, but it also limits the functionality and leaves a gap that BREW is ideally placed to fill.

So, what we can expect to see from QUALCOMM are devices that use J2ME for games and basic applications, with the ability to tap into the vast availability of uncertified applications. At the same time, certified BREW applications can be properly integrated into the environment and offer additional functionality to the built-in applications, protected by the testing and certification system QUALCOMM insists on.

However, the window for BREW is short; MIDP 2.0 offers a much more granular level of security, with support for Midlets to be certified by a device manufacturer or network operator and thus allowed access to the kind of resources that BREW still has for itself for the moment. With the first MIDP 2.0 devices coming available at the end of this year, BREW is going to have to find another way to justify its existence so it won't become just one step on the way to a good cup of coffee.

More Stories By Bill Ray

Bill Ray, former editor-in-chief (and continuing distinguished contributor to) Wireless Business & Technology magazine, has been developing wireless applications for over 20 ears on just about every platform available. Heavily involved in Java since its release, he developed some of the first cryptography applications for Java and was a founder of JCP Computer Services, a company later sold to Sun Microsystems. At Swisscom he was responsible for the first Java-capable DTV set-top box, and currently holds the position of head of Enabling Software at 02, a UK network operator.

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