Open for business
Svetlana Josifovska, Correspondent, EDN Europe/UK - November 1, 2004
Just as with the PC, application developers—in multimedia, games, or services—need a standard platform to which to port their products. Producing a separate version of their code for each of multiple manufacturers’ individual handset operating systems is no longer an option. Moreover, owners of successful applications—games, for example—want them to run from closely related (if not identical) code on mobiles and on other platforms.
Given the similarities between this market and the PC market, it’s no surprise to find Microsoft in the field with a version of Windows. However, the first into the field and the current market leader in shipped handsets, is Symbian, with its OS that grew out of the EPOC PDA code. At the end of 2003, Cambridge (UK)-based Symbian claimed that manufacturers shipped 1 million phones per month worldwide with its operating system.
The great divide in the choice of OS is Java or not? Or rather, native Java or not? At the application level, much of the code downloaded may be in Java. So is a “pure” Java implementation appropriate? Symbian is a native C++ system; if you want Java, a virtual machine runs on the basic OS.
In the opposing camp are offerings such as SavaJe’s native Java implementation, which runs on Texas Instruments’ OMAP and on ARM9 platforms. SavaJe has also recently put in place an agreement with Intel to provide a platform on its hardware. In all of these cases, the offering includes a basic OS plus a set of services and higher level applications. You can take the OS provider’s higher level package, or you can layer on a middleware package.
Some observers have argued that a major reason for the initial growth of cellular usage was the industry’s success in producing a simple user interface. You held the device in your hand, pushed buttons just like on your land-line phone, and it made calls. Most subsequent applications have failed to capture that essential simplicity of user interface.
But if you can’t have simple, you can at least have standard—a user interface that has a similar look and feel across multiple models and brands yet vendors—and, to some extent, users—can customize it. This goal is part of what middleware providers aspire to.
An example is OpenWave, which supplies its browser to many midrange feature phones with closed OSs and has now introduced its V7 Phone Suite of customizable services. The fact that V7 in turn hosts a media player by Real further demonstrates the layering effect.
A supplier that has taken a unique stand in this sector is Tao with its Intent multimedia middleware, which not only can run code in C, C++ or Java, but also can operate on a third-party OS or be the native OS itself. And no embedded system today is without its Linux offering. And this OS, too, has a following in the mobile-phone sector.
With a ramp-up in the percentage of open-OS cell phones in the midrange and high-end smart-phone sector, you can expect to see a degree of caution from application providers until some OS achieves critical mass.
However, even if it’s hard to predict what will become a big seller across all applications, there is no question that games will be huge. Companies such as Babel Media with its services for porting and testing games on mobile platforms, and SuperScape, with its Java platform for hosting games on mass-market mobiles, are already providing games to new terminals.
Will interactive or multiplayer games using the air interface not just as the download medium but as the player-to-player medium emerge? Tao’s director, Martin Gosling, believes it will be possible with the data rates and latency that should be available on 3G phones. “At over 200 kbps, anything is possible,” he says. However, he believes that interactive 3G gaming is still years away.