Vindigo ‘Brews’ City Guides for Verizon

Verizon Wireless is rolling out an advanced new feature for subscribers: the popular city-guide application Vindigo. And it comes with a billing system that could help advance the wireless industry.

The Vindigo program, which provides restaurant, museum and entertainment information for 27 major cities around the U.S., can be downloaded on Verizon’s latest Z-800 line of cell phones, which adds a monthly fee of $3.75 to users’ bills.

The cost may be a pittance compared to other extras wireless subscribers pay, but it also represents a big step forward for Verizon and other US wireless carriers: The Vindigo application and Verizon’s new Z-800 phone support billing for bits of data using the BREW (Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless) development platform.

Developed by San Diego-based cell phone technology company QUALCOMM , the thin application environment tends to toil in the shadow of the more widespread J2ME mobile device development platform, which is based on Sun Microsystem’s Java language and supports a wider array of devices beyond cell phones.

But U.S. carriers are finding success with BREW’s advanced billing capabilities that help them connect to legacy systems that have long-hobbled their ability to bill for wireless games and entertainment data that are common in Europe and Asia.

“It’s an essential feature to making this market work,” said Jason Devitt, chief executive and co-founder of the New York-based Vindigo. Indeed, early generations of WAP-enabled cell phones were considered a flop because of difficulty in billing for the data streams.

Another aspect that BREW offers over J2ME right now, Devitt added, is a revenue sharing aspect that industry experts say funnels 70 to 80 percent of the application revenues back to the developer, while the carrier and QUALCOMM split the balance.

A similar arrangement with J2ME “simply isn’t true for Java yet,” Devitt said. “Developers and engineers don’t pay as much attention to the billing aspects, primarily because they’re working on delivering applications to enterprise users who won’t have to pay for using them. But in consumer-facing applications, billing is a big mess.”

Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon spokesman, said the ability for BREW-enabled phones to support billing for data, whether that’s 10 plays of a Tiger Woods golf game or a monthly charge is a huge development for the company. He also said J2ME-enabled phones are expected to be introduced in Verizon phones in the near future as well.

Many developers still shy away from working on the BREW platform because the bulk of applications are still built in J2ME, said wireless consultant Tim Appnel, the former head of interactive consultancy’s applied concepts lab.

“Developers tend to prefer J2ME because its an easier language to learn. If a developer already knows Java, it’s not a very big leap to J2ME, but with BREW, which is built on C++ language and very hard to learn, it’s as if you have to unlearn some of what you know.”

BREW is also tied to the CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access) , network standard which some developers say limits carriers only to the US market, since other world markets deploy the GSM standard which is tied to the TDMA (a time-division multiplexing) technology.

“Because of the limitations of CDMA, BREW is not nearly as widespread, so in that sense you’re limiting the potential of applications developed on BREW,” Appnel said.

But QUALCOMM has been working on offering a convergence platform called GSM1x, which essentially allows engineers to mix up GSM/GPRS standards with a network deploying CDMA architecture.

And Devitt maintains that the billing aspect of the BREW platform can’t be overlooked. By some accounts, Verizon maintains 15 different platforms for its voice billing systems, not to mention legacy systems that need upgrading in order to handle billing for chunks of bits along with voice streams.

The means engineers have to develop for monthly recurring usage along with one-time downloads, and make sure they’re delivered securely across 29 million or so subscribers –then have the information flow from users to their bills and then determine how the revenues are split among developers and carriers.

“It’s a big engineering challenge that QUALCOMM is addressing, which Sun, in my view, has avoided completely,” said Devitt. And with good reason, he added.

Billing is not often considered an application development or engineering issue, which explains why Java developers tend to treat billing systems as a separate problem.

“Qualcomm has approached billing in an integrated way,” said Devitt. “They seemed to feel the carriers pain.” Developers are apparently growing more keen on the issue, too. By some estimates, the number of BREW developers has more than doubled in the past year, although Sun’s count of 3 million Java-savvy developers still dominate the industry.

But clearly, there’s some cross pollination going on between the two platforms, Devitt added. For now, however, BREW’s tether to the CDMA standard is not considered as big an issue because of the potential size of the U.S. market once Verizon and other carriers start rolling out 2.5 and eventually 3G networks that can handle faster data transmission.

With granular billing abilities finally built in behind the snazzy games and features, experts say the long promise of European-style wireless growth hitting these shores may actually come to pass.

Or as Jim Straight, vice president of wireless data and Internet services for Verizon Wireless put it, “we believe these services will help us reach our goal to morph the wireless phone into a valuable resource for consumers who want up-to-the minute information to help them manage their life.”

The Z-800 phones, which feature full color display, retail for about $399.99.
Another new BREW-enabled feature Verizon is offering includes downloads of content for $4.75 per month. That service is available on the Kyocera 3035e “smart” phone as well as Verizon’s new Z-800, with other lines expected to be enabled in the near future.

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