Java on Your Mobile Phone?

Sun Microsystems brought a civil suit against Microsoft last Friday, alleging that the Redmond-based company unfairly used its operating-system monopoly to undermine Java. (Lawsuits against Microsoft are becoming so popular that I predict you’ll soon be able to file one at your local ATM.) Sun’s move probably surprised no one, but it shows just how desperate the company is to keep Java alive. Sun’s and Microsoft’s actions during the next 12 months will likely determine Java’s ultimate fate, but the lawsuit itself is little more than a sideshow.

That’s because the lawsuit comes at a time when Java’s hold on the desktop couldn’t be more tenuous. When was the last time you ran a Java applet on your PC? Most websites and banner ads now use Flash when they need interactivity, because Macromedia’s development tools make it much easier to create visually interesting and attractive animations. Corporations that use Java-based client software are, by and large, phasing them out in favor of HTML-based clients that work with any Web browser. (Java runs in most browsers, but it’s slower, harder to manage, and more unwieldy for building applications than plain-vanilla HTML is.) Even if Sun wins in court and forces Microsoft to maintain Java support within Windows, it won’t change the fact that Java on the desktop is dead.

In fact, the real battle for Java is taking place on servers and in wireless devices such as your mobile phone, two sectors where Java seems poised for explosive growth. (For the server side of the story, see “Is Java Obsolete?“) Sun estimates that there are about 14 million Java-enabled cell phones currently in use — mostly in Japan, where NTT DoCoMo uses them to offer Java-based games and entertainment content, such as mobile-phone versions of the arcade classics Pac Man and Frogger. This year, Sun predicts, about 100 million Java-enabled phones will be sold worldwide (about half of them by Nokia). That’s a quarter of the total cell-phone market for the year.

If that forecast bears out, there’s a good chance you’ll be using a Java-capable cell phone in the next year or two. Developers are clearly intrigued. When Java programmers gather in San Francisco for the JavaOne conference later this month (March 25-29), expect the biggest buzz to be around mobile applications.

Will wireless applications be enough to keep Java relevant? Probably, for a couple of reasons. First, the language could make it easier for carriers to offer interactive services and content, starting with entertainment. Using your cell phone to play Pac Man may sound frivolous, but as with text messaging services, consumers, not companies, will lead the charge to buy more sophisticated phones. Games are the bait that carriers will use to snare millions of teenagers and young adults, building out the smart-phone market. Second, widely available Java phones would make it easier for enterprise software vendors to adapt their applications for use on mobile phones. Third, wireless Java applications would enable companies to build their own mobile apps, utilizing the Java resources (code and programmers) they already own.

Don’t expect any of these corporate applications to be particularly sophisticated. The tiny size of cell-phone screens is a limitation that will restrict mobile apps to the simplest and most mission-critical functions, such as looking up contact information and using sales-force automation applications.

Naturally, Microsoft has its own cell-phone platform in the works, based on its Pocket PC operating system for handhelds. Sales lag far behind those of Java phones, but Microsoft could yet present a significant threat to Sun’s ownership of the mobile market. Sun has done a good job of laying the groundwork, but the next year will tell whether mobile Java really has legs or not.

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Java on Your Mobile Phone?