Oracle likely to leave mobile Java alone

The cell phone application platform probably won't be a priority, observers say

Oracle's planned acquisition of Sun Microsystems probably won't immediately affect the world of mobile Java, some industry observers said, though over time the company might have an interest in steering the technology to its benefit.

Oracle has said Java was its biggest reason for buying Sun, but the move may have had more to do with enterprise uses of Java than the mobile arena, according to some people close to the mobile business. Java Mobile Edition (formerly J2ME) has been widely used as an application platform for "feature phones," or handsets that can support applications and some Internet use but are less full-featured than smartphones. Mobile Java is also the basis of most third-party applications for Research in Motion's BlackBerry smartphone, and Google's Android platform uses Java at the application level.

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Java's role in handsets may decline as smartphones decline in price and start to replace feature phones, though that change is likely to take several years. In addition, mobile Java may get a second wind from the upcoming Java FX platform, designed for smartphones, PCs, and other clients.

Sun has licensed and promoted mobile Java freely for mobile handsets with an eye to selling more enterprise Java servers to mobile operators. But it hasn't played a strong role in guiding the mobile technology, instead allowing software and hardware vendors and carriers to develop a variety of Java virtual machines. That has led to a plethora of Java-enabled phones and mobile Java applications, but also complaints about fragmentation that makes life harder for developers.

Oracle has more important issues to deal with in the short term, such as integrating Sun and possibly jettisoning much of its hardware business, but observers disagree on whether it will take advantage of mobile Java later on.

"I suspect that J2ME is not going to be what Oracle is going to want to focus on," said analyst Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates, adding that it wasn't a major focus for Sun, either.

Jason Devitt, president and CEO of mobile software maker Skydeck, also downplayed Sun's role. Devitt founded Vindigo, which developed software for many Java-enabled phones.

"If there's a problem ... you go to the operator, the (original equipment manufacturer), the JVM company, and Sun, in that order," Devitt said. Java, originally conceived as a common platform that would let developers write an application once for many handsets and carriers, failed spectacularly in that respect, he said.

"If you wanted to support every phone in the market, you might have to do several hundred different builds of your software," Devitt said. Developers now are most excited about writing mostly Web-based applications using HTML and CSS, as well as JavaScript, which despite its name is not closely related to Java, he said. RIM has added support for Google's Gears development plug-in for writing Web-based BlackBerry applications.

Because Sun has largely handed the reins of mobile Java to the developer community, Oracle couldn't change the mobile Java world much even if it wanted.

"At this point, you can't put the genie back in the bottle," said analyst Avi Greengart of Current Analysis.

However, Oracle may have an incentive to do what it can to push mobile Java, one observer said.

"I don’t see any reason why Oracle wouldn't just keep going in the same direction or become more aggressive because this gives them an entree into mobile," said David Adams, founder of Mobile Research. His company maintains and sells a database of mobile phones that developers use to make sure their applications work on different models. Adams is a Java developer and once served on a Java advisory group.

The mobile application environment is starting to shift toward applications that rely on the Web and thus on back-end databases of the kind that Oracle sells, Adams said. That means Oracle has an incentive to continue to support Java in the mobile environment because Java enables mobile Web applications that could spur more sales for Oracle.

While Java has historically been regarded as primarily a technology for feature phones, that might be changing, Adams said. "Java FX is coming down the line," he noted. That's a new Java development environment from Sun that might solve some of the limitations that make the current Java MIDP (Mobile Information Device Profile) less usable on smartphones.

Android's use of Java is also a significant factor, according to Adams. While there's just one Android phone in the U.S. so far, more are expected and there have been murmurs of interest in Android from netbook manufacturers, Adams noted. That keeps Java of interest in the mobile environment.

"I still think Java is the lingua franca for mobile except for the iPhone," Adams said. "I think Oracle just dealt themselves into a really amazing position in mobile."

One thing Adams believes Oracle could do to help developers would be to move mobile Java into a standards-based development process, something others have also advocated. Making that transition would still benefit Oracle because support for Java would still remain strong in a standards environment, he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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