Who are the key players in the European wireless application market and how does J2ME fit into this picture? In this article I look at the current trends in Europe regarding J2ME and how the more interesting Java Specifications Requests could possibly affect the European and global markets.
Europe: One Standard=Fast Growth
By the end of 2002, there were a total of 365 million mobile phone subscriptions in Europe. According to the researcher EMC, this number will grow to 413 million subscribers in 2004 - a mobile phone penetration of 83%. At the end of 2001, more than 50 of Europe's 76 mobile operators had already launched their 2.5G (GPRS) networks and currently GPRS is available almost everywhere. Austria launched a 3G (UMTS) network in the fall of 2002 and Europe's largest mobile operator - Vodafone with over 100 million subscribers - will launch its UMTS network this summer in Germany. The fast growth in earlier times was due to the commitment to a single communication standard: GSM. While the U.S. still struggles with building a nationwide GSM network to switch to 2.5G GPRS and then move to UMTS (W-CDMA), most countries in Europe will have their UMTS networks up and running by the end of 2003.
Shift Toward Data Communication
Every mobile operator will tell you that there's a shift toward data communication, and it's unclear if this shift is a major opportunity for mobile operators or a major threat. The business models and growth projections of many European mobile operators are built upon the assumption that data communication will increase sharply with the introduction of the packet-based 2.5G and 3G networks. While the introduction of 2.5G networks has increased the usage of the Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), we're still waiting for bigger growth. The biggest European success story for data communication is still the Short Message Service (SMS): Europeans and especially young Europeans are crazy about sending overpriced 160 character messages (about 0.15 euros each) to each other. At the beginning of 2002, Siemens shipped its first mobile phones with "battle games" that use SMS to communicate with peers.
The latest trend in Europe is picture and video messaging. Vodafone, Europe's largest mobile operator, was the first to introduce a mobile phone with a built-in camera, Nokia's 7560. This quite heavy and large phone soon had competition from smaller phones made by Sharp and Panasonic that Vodafone is selling under the Vodafone Life! label. Vodafone succeeded in integrating its own look and feel into the mobile phone - they've completely branded the phone menu.
How Does J2ME Fit In?
You don't have to search that long to find a Java-enabled mobile phone in Europe. You almost can't buy a phone without it any more! When it comes to the penetration of Java-enabled phones, Europe is the second wonderland (probably after Japan). The strong brands like Nokia and Siemens are committed to the Java platform and almost any device ships with support for MIDP 1.0 (based on the CLDC 1.0).
The first Java-enabled devices were introduced in the summer of 2001: the SL45 was a much-hyped phone that provided Siemens with heightened brand awareness. Since then, several bugs have been fixed and the currently available phones are finally quite stable and predictable. Also note that the SL45 first shipped without support for GPRS, which meant you had to wait up to one minute to establish a data connection, if it could be established at all.
GPRS means always-on functionality and immediate access to data networks. This is different with GSM, where you first have to establish a connection, then the phone has to register with the network, and finally a transfer can begin. It took a long time to establish a data connection with the SL45i, which reminded most of the early adopters of their experiences with the first phones that implemented WAP - wait until the phone finally tells you that it can't establish a connection!
Although many phones are currently Java-enabled, this doesn't mean that the paradigm "write once, run everywhere" is true for the J2ME world. Each manufacturer has added some supplemental APIs to the core J2ME APIs (that are based on the APIs of CLDC and MIDP) that make it hard to produce cross phone-compatible software products. It's possible in theory, but the additional features that these APIs provide are hard to ignore as a developer: the sending and receiving of SMS messages, special gaming APIs, and control of the back light or the vibrating function are among those features that you want to use if you're developing "cool" Java-based games. Fortunately, most of those features are addressed by Java Specification Requests developed through the Java Community Process.
In addition, Sun is addressing the increasing API fragmentation with JSR 185, which provides a Java technology roadmap. The first roadmap is available at the JCP Web site, and new roadmaps are expected to be issued every six to nine months. In short, the first roadmap says that Java-enabled mobile phones that will be available in Q2/Q3 must have the following characteristics to be compliant with this roadmap: support for CLDC 1.0 or CLDC 1.1, Wireless Messaging API 1.0, and MIDP 2.0. Further, the Multimedia Messaging API (MMAPI) is conditionally required if the device exposes video playback, or audio or video/image recording capabilities to Java applications.
J2ME-Based Applications and Billing Options
When it comes to currently installed and used J2ME applications in Europe, the predominant application type is clearly mobile games. The available Java-enabled handsets have created both a new demand for mobile games and lots of new Web sites that sell mobile games. Java gaming revenues are estimated to increase to $195 million by 2004 (Source: O2, Germany).
To install the applications, there are basically two options to choose from: download the software and transfer it using a data link cable or directly download it over-the-air (OTA) using the mobile phone's WAP browser. Because most mobile phone users do not use their WAP browsers on a regular basis and thus would never visit the vendor's WAP site to install an application, and the installation using a data link cable is too complicated, some vendors send their customers SMS messages that allow them to connect directly to the WAP site for the application download. This interesting solution also solves the payment problem:
1. After the user has surfed the mobile games vendor's Web site and decided which game to download, he first has to call a premium-charged telephone number to obtain a transaction number (TAN). This service can easily be set up using the VoiceXML language that allows the rapid setup of voice-enabled applications.
2. When the user then wants to buy the chosen game, he also has to enter his mobile phone number and the TAN number. The TAN number is used to verify that the user has paid and is valid only once. The mobile phone number is used to send the user a special text message that will allow him to download the game.
3. The user immediately receives a text message. The message contains a special URL that points to the Java game's installation files. By clicking on the phone's call button, most phones directly start the WAP browser and begin requesting this URL. This will result in the download (OTA) of the J2ME application. After the installation, the user can access the game through the phone's menu.
Sounds complicated? It definitely is. Another solution application vendors use is a voice-enabled service only: the user first notes the order ID of the application she wants to download, and then calls the service telephone number. She must then enter this order ID and her telephone number to receive the text message with the download URL and then proceeds as described above.
Most third-party software providers have to use these methods because the mobile operators won't let them use their own billing services, or the billing services are not yet capable of dealing with Java application downloads. Most European operators currently try to dominate as many parts of the wireless value chain as possible and therefore try to sell their own games over their own channels. They recognize that there's a huge number of software developers who can provide them with new games.
Some mobile handset manufacturers are giving away their games to provide additional value to their customers. Siemens, for example, provides free Java downloads via their wap.my-siemens.com/games site that you can access with a WAP-enabled mobile phone.
Regarding the billing of data transfers, most operators currently bill the kilobytes transferred over the network, as most networks are GPRS-enabled and most cellular phones come shipped ready to use GPRS. Also, GPRS is always available; you don't have to buy a special Internet plan or pay extra to have it activated. The prices are quite high and are related to the usage of the Wireless Application Protocol or the downloading of mobile Java applications, which does not produce high-volume transfers. If you apply these data plans and try to download, say a 4MB MP3 file, you'd pay about $217! Note that the current prices for GPRS transfers should only be considered when browsing WAP sites or downloading Java applications (about 50KB per application).
There are also some volume plans that you can purchase that offer you better prices: 20MB for about $42. This would allow you to check your e-mails or surf some Web sites for a fair cost, but it still can't be considered cheap or mainstream. In reality, few people use GPRS to surf the Web. Some people use their phones to access WAP sites to get some news or to buy movie tickets. The German operator O2 has a very easy billing solution: each click on a WAP page costs .05 euro (5.4 U.S. cents). This is a billing solution that the users understand - when accessing WAP sites you normally don't see a data counter, so users are always unsure of the costs.
The prices will drop significantly when more bandwidth becomes available with UMTS, especially for the mobile Internet. Operators announced that there would be no special fee to use UMTS for voice communication, only new features like video streaming will be extra.
J2ME Java Specification Requests
I'll now look at current Java Specification Requests and their impact on the European market. Table 1 shows you the JSRs that I picked from the 41 currently available at jcp.org and will discuss in this article.
Wireless Messaging API
Under the lead of Jan Eichholz from Siemens AG in Munich, the Wireless Messaging API (JSR 120) was first released in August 2002 and allows access to the SMS capabilities of the mobile phone. Further, Cell Broadcasts (messages broadcast over the mobile operator's network to every mobile phone) can be accessed. An enhancement to this API that also covers the current trend of picture messaging - MMS - is the Wireless Messaging API 2.0 (JSR 205) currently under development.
The advantage of this API is that it unifies all the proprietary solutions that each mobile phone manufacturer had implemented in their early Java-enabled phones. SMS is a simple, yet powerful way of communicating with peers or other systems as gaming servers. It's instantly available on most mobile phones and has predictable costs, which is crucial for the end user.
As the need for such messaging support is high in Europe and solutions are already developed and only have to be adapted to the new API, we'll start to see implementations of this API in the next few months. Implementations for version 2.0 with MMS support are expected to hit the shelves next year.
SMS is the ideal communication service for mobile gaming applications: its ubiquitous availability makes it easy for developers to build mobile games that harness this technical possibility and exchange information with other players (high scores, moves in a chess game, etc.). Further, each outgoing SMS is billed by the mobile operators, which makes them very willing to promote those games within their mobile portals. Such games could be offered for free and would earn revenues through the resulting text messaging traffic. The application developers would earn money through revenue-sharing agreements with the mobile operators.
Mobile Media API 1.0
This API (already released) was led by Jyri Huopaniemi (Nokia) and the first products should be available now. The Nokia 3650 is one of the first cellular phones to implement this API. It allows for the use of the multimedia capabilities of the device, such as sound and video, through a generic interface and is extensible for future demands.
As major European providers launch their 3G networks this year and increased bandwidth becomes available on mobile devices, new services become feasible. These services include the on-demand usage of the latest TV news on a mobile device or the download of the latest MP3 to the phone's memory. The success of such services will depend on the pricing model for data transfer that the mobile operators will introduce. Data consumed by surfing mobile Web sites (WAP) should be treated differently than downloading a 4MB MP3 from a music shop. From the device manufacturer's point of view, playback of videos or streaming audio is no problem. Unfortunately, it will take some time until most manufacturers make these proprietary APIs accessible via Java.
Access to current location information is a crucial component for all future wireless applications. This information is highly valuable as it makes it possible to design smart applications that link the location of the user to their activities and more. Since February 23, this API has been available for public review at the JSP Web site. Under the lead of Kimmo Löytänä (Nokia), a common interface for accessing location information - both network assisted and information that's readily available on the device via GPS - has been designed.
The final release of the specification can be expected in the fall of 2003 or even later. First implementations will take even longer, as several hardware solutions have to be evaluated. Problems may arise because this API could endanger some business models of mobile operators who expect to sell this location information to the users. Onboard location information, which is gathered through the use of a small GPS receiver within a mobile phone, is available for free and undermines the mobile operators plans. The operators favor a network-assisted solution, whereby the mobile network does the positioning and sends that information to the client device.
The regulatory office of Germany (RegTP) estimates that the total European market for location-based services will increase to $9,167 million in 2005. For the end user, location-based services will solve questions like: "Where is the next restaurant?" or "Where is the next ATM?" So far, location-based services were developed only for WAP-based applications and needed strong support from each mobile operator. This API makes it possible to use the same implementation with several mobile operators.
J2ME offers many possibilities for both handset manufacturers and mobile operators, which may be the main reason for its success in Europe. As the market is almost saturated, mobile operators fight for customers and want to differentiate themselves through the services they offer.
Stateside, mobile phone users see their phones mostly as an extension of their telephone line, whereas in Europe it's much more than voice communication: right now it begins with sending text, picture, or video messages, and ends up with surfing the mobile Internet (WAP). The mobile phone is becoming an irreplaceable element of everyday life.
This is also a big opportunity for third-party software developers. As we switch from 2G-based networks to 3G, completely new links in the wireless value chain emerge. The need for content and applications is getting stronger as more and more users get the latest technology in their hands when replacing old phones.
To leverage the power of both the wireless Internet and your Java applications, several key players in the industry have to work together. Most of all, mobile operators have to provide billing solutions for third-party developers and have to forbear from using walled-garden approaches.
Resources Java Community Process: www.jcp.org
Mobile Messages (SMS, EMS, MMS) in Western Europe, Gartner Dataquest, 2002: www.digitwireless.com/press/
Market for location-related services, Strategy Analytics, 2002.
World market for Mobile Gaming, Frost & Sullivan, 08/2002:
Handspiele - mobile gaming: Thomas Kern, O2 Deutschland Presentation while the conference Münchner Medientage in Munich.
Sven Haiges is a student of computer science and business at the University of Furtwangen, Germany, and currently lives in Vancouver, Canada, where he is
completing an MBA in management of technology at Simon Fraser University.