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A Shift in Platform Choices Favors Java

Apparently, the mobile device sector just can't live without its Java.

A new study by SRI Consulting Business Intelligence (SRIC-BI) says there are several key issues currently facing handset manufacturers and developers of content and applications.

According to SRIC-BI, manufacturers face many challenges in supporting more than one kind of system software, and despite the large number of PDA manufacturers, only a small number of them support more than one PDA operating system.

Additionally, many developers face the task of deciding which platforms will be important to target and struggle against the high costs of adapting and marketing existing content and applications for other platforms.

To make matters even more competitive, mobile operators tend to support the handheld platforms that are only compatible with their networks, partly in an effort to deter customers from switching their phones to another company's network, according to SRIC-BI, and partly out of allegiance to certain mobile device manufacturers.

SRIC-BI's latest study, titled 'Programmable Mobile Phones: The Battle over Platform Software,' suggests that many manufacturers and developers are shifting their platform choices away from leading mobile platforms like Microsoft , Palm , Blackberry , Qualcomm , and Symbian, and are instead favoring Java.

According to the study's author, Michael Gold, a senior engineer in the Digital Futures Program at SRIC-BI, this recent trend is due in part to licensing terms, which for Java are more favorable and cheaper than Microsoft, Palm, Symbian, and others.

According to Gold, Java phones don't require as much memory and processor power, which enables longer battery life. And because Java licensing terms are less expensive, manufacturers can more cheaply market a Java device.

An estimated 50 million Java handsets are currently on the market and shipments of Java handsets exceeded PDA shipments in 2002, said Gold, adding that one out of ever ten cell phones in the world will be Java phones by the end of the year.

"The answer is increasingly just Java," Gold told internetnews.com.

"By end 2003, the size of the market that one can address with Java will still be larger than that of all PDAs and smartphones (such as Nokia Communicator and the Ericsson or Samsung equivalents) together, even if PDAs and smartphones grow by 100 percent in units this year (probably an unrealistically high assumption)," said Gold.

The SRIC-BI study does not include personal organizers or notebook PCs.

According to Gold, the industry lean toward Java operating systems could lead to what he refers to as the "erosion" of the vertical mobile industry structure.

As opposed to the horizontal nature of the PC industry, the mobile communications industry tends to be more vertical because handset makers often insource and standard mobile devices are often bundled products.

But as the mobile industry leans more toward Java, which is considered a horizontal platform, developers can target both mobile and desktop devices using Java and create demand for solutions that are completely interoperable between the PC and the mobile platform.

"Making it increasingly difficult for mobile industries to bundle everything," said Gold, adding that software platforms may become the future battleground for price wars over customer acquisition.

The study also predicts that within the mobile communications sector, Microsoft will possibly become stymied by competitors and mobile operators that don't want the software superpower to gain the upper hand in the mobile communications industry.

Silicon Valley-based SRIC-BI is a consumer research and consulting spin-off of SRI International, a non-profit research institute known as the Stanford Research Institute until 1977. SRI was founded in 1946.