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Sinking Without a Trace

Sinking Without a Trace

Right now mention Java on mobile phones and most people think of something fun, with potential for the future. Games and puzzles are the order of the day, with the power and versatility of Java reduced to entertaining businesspeople on the train. But Java has much more to offer, and soon we're going to see it bursting out from its Sand Box to take on the world.

Java has had an impact on just about every area of computer technology, not the least, wireless. It's on mobile phone handsets where the original intention of Java has come closest to being realized. Mobile phones come in a wide range of types and styles, and the use of the MIDP (Mobile Information Device Profile) Java standard on millions of handsets has enabled unprecedented breadth of distribution for applications conforming to the standard. But while the ability to run basic applications on lots of phones is a good thing, it's only scratching the surface of what Java can do, and a new generation of phones is starting to see Java as much more than an environment for downloaded entertainment.

Java Caged
Java started on the PC and, in a story that is well told, found its niche embedded in Web sites and executed in browsers. Held within a Sand Box, Java applets (as these embedded programs are known) are limited as to what they can do, for the protection of the user. Nontechnical users can feel as confident running a Java applet as they do viewing an HTML page, in the knowledge that the browser will protect them from any nastiness. This works very well, and can be seen in everything from downloadable arcade games to news tickers and dancing text, but it was only the first step on Java's infiltration of our computer systems.

It is, of course, possible to write any application in Java, and while the concentration in the last few years has been on server-side components, there are many commercial desktop packages written in Java. For desktop applications the platform independence of Java is less important; porting an application to Windows and Mac just isn't very difficult.

But Java has many other advantages too. It's a very object-oriented language, offering fantastically easy code reuse. It's self-documenting and error intolerant, so even the sloppiest of developers is forced to implement a minimum of error trapping. All this leads to fast application development and deployment, which is a very attractive proposition on any platform.

There were several attempts to get rid of the whole operating system and just run everything on the desktop within Java. But the problems of re-creating all the applications currently used on Windows killed the Java OS before it was born. While many companies looked at moving their applications into Java, to run on a Java-based OS, Microsoft Office was never going to make that jump, and without Office, the idea was a nonstarter. But the dream of a Java-based environment isn't dead yet.

On phones we're very much at that first stage of Java implementation. The MIDP version 1.0 defines a very restrictive Sand Box, meaning that Midlets (as Java applications conforming to the MIDP are known) are very limited in the actions they can perform. While a Midlet can display things on the screen and create network connections to the rest of the Internet (over HTTP), it cannot communicate with other applications on the phone itself (such as the address book or diary), and it can't even take advantage of the very features that make a phone a phone, such as placing a call or sending a text message.

These limitations on the capabilities of MIDP have led to Java applications being limited to self-contained apps with limited functionality. This then leads to a perception, endemic in the mobile sphere, that Java is about games and graphics, rated somewhere near a color screen in must-have features. But these limitations won't last forever.

Extending Java the Proprietary Way
We've already seen companies extend their MIDP implementations to add functionality. A good example of this is the ability to send and receive text messages. Not only has SMS proved massively popular with users, it also presents a great communications channel for Java Midlets wanting to do everything from electronic commerce to non-time-sensitive multiplayer games.

This ability is so important that Nokia decided not to wait for the standard to be agreed on, but instead to go ahead and implement the functionality on their phones with a proprietary API. Of course, Nokia would much prefer to implement a standard API, and has worked within the JCP (Java Community Process) to establish that standard (now known as JSR120). But we are still waiting for handsets that implement this new standard.

An example may serve to illustrate the utility this will make possible. Mobile reps for a holiday tour company were equipped with Nokia 3410 handsets, a low-end phone supporting MIDP 1.0, with an m-commerce application on it. In order to sell extras to vacationers (activities like water skiing or horseback-riding trips) the reps run the application that asks them questions about how much the activity costs and the credit card details of the customer. These details are then formatted as an SMS message and sent to an authorization server, which responds with an SMS of its own, indicating that the transaction has been completed.

This SMS response is picked up by the application, which then displays the information to the rep. In this way, reps are able to accept credit card payments all over the world, using a client application that took under a day to create! Of course this application will work only on Nokia phones. Until a standard is implemented - and available on a wide range of devices - such applications will be limited to vertical markets where the choice of handset can be dictated.

Messaging is only one example where MIDP 1.0 falls short of what's wanted, so JSR118 defines MIDP 2.0, a completely new version of the MIDP standard. MIDP 2.0 not only allows Midlets much more freedom to communicate with in-built applications, but it also has a much more granular security model. Where an MIDP 1.0 Midlet simply couldn't do certain things, and could do others, MIDP 2.0 Midlets can be digitally signed and allowed to do things conditional as to who signed them.

The Midlet Identity
Through the use of digital signatures it's possible for an MIDP 2.0 Midlet to be identified as having been created by either the phone manufacturer, the network operator, a trusted partner, or an untrusted source. For those coming from an untrusted source the available functionality of MIDP 2.0 is much the same as version 1, with some graphical improvements, but for those with the right credentials, a world of possibilities opens up.

Not only is the ability to perform actions limited by who created the application, but some actions require user authorization depending on the signature. For example, any Midlet can send a text message, but the user will be asked to authorize every message sent. However, the network operator can create a Midlet that can send and receive text messages without user involvement, or knowledge. Because the network operator is responsible for the billing arrangements, it's up to them to ensure that their customer either isn't charged or doesn't mind. By breaking down the security model in this way, MIDP 2.0 Midlets can be much more functional, while still allowing freedom and confidence for the user.

With such a granular security model it's possible to use Java for more than just games and entertainment. Indeed, some phone manufacturers are starting to think of Java as a useful language for their own applications. Every phone handset has a range of applications embedded in it at manufacture, usually including a basic address book, message composition and inbox, phone-setting management, and often a very basic calendar or at least an alarm clock. These applications are, traditionally, developed in C to run on the operating system of the phone.

While phones offered only very basic functionality, this was not a problem, but as phones get more complex, these applications are becoming increasingly more time-consuming to develop (see Figure 1).

As the phone already has a JVM in it, and a Midlet signed by the manufacturer has access to all the resources most in-built applications need, there is no reason not to make use of Java for these embedded applications. Users may not be aware that they are running a Java Midlet, nor should they be, but the reduction in development time and the stability of Java can make everyone's life easier. One well-known manufacturer already uses Java Midlets to control the camera functions on their phone, so you might be using Java today without even knowing it!

Java to the Core
If it makes sense to create some of the applications embedded on the phone in Java, does it make sense to create any of them in C? With increased processor speeds and memory getting cheaper all the time, it might be possible to just create the whole suite of applications for the phone in Java, using the MIDP 2.0 profile. Such an environment would make changes to the hardware design easier, and ease development in what is an increasingly competitive market. There are some small penalties in speed and memory requirements, but these are already minimal and being further reduced.

This approach is offered by Esmertec, who suggests providing a phone application suite created wholly in MIDP 2.0, running on a minimal embedded OS. Obviously they need a core kernel, and have had to add a couple of proprietary extensions to get all the functionality they need, but the ability for quick integration of MIDP 2.0 applications and remote management of the software on the device, makes for a compelling proposition. Esmertec addresses the speed concerns inherent in Java by precompiling Midlets to native code as part of the installation process. This offers the performance of a JIT (Just In Time) compiler without the startup lag normally associated with JIT technologies.

The sinking of Java is taken one stage further by SavaJe, who has decided not to muck about with MIDP standards, and instead, has implemented pretty much the whole J2SE (Standard Edition) API. While still only possible on high-end handsets, this offers the ability to run normal Java applications, and to integrate new applications easily and quickly with the phone. Support for the Swing APIs allows innovative and interesting GUI development, while MIDP 2.0 Midlets are still supported within a Sand Box itself written in Java (see Figure 2).

Clearly the reality of the Java-based computer is still on its way, even if it's going to be in our pockets rather than on our desks. Java has always rested on top of everything, but by sinking into the OS before it can dominate mobile development, it's going to have to sink out of sight.

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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